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Oklahoma lawmaker aims to restore oversight to state tourism commission in wake of scandal

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Senate Bill 4 would rescind the Governor’s authority to hire the leader of Oklahoma’s Tourism and Recreation Department.

An Oklahoma lawmaker has filed legislation to restore authority to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commission.

Senate Appropriations Chair Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, filed Senate Bill 4, which would rescind the Governor’s authority to hire the leader of Oklahoma’s Tourism and Recreation Department. Thompson’s bill would also give the tourism commission authority over the state agency — it currently serves in an advisory role.

The 2019 measure, House Bill 3603 removed the tourism commission's authority to oversee and approve contracts and budgets and transferred that power to the Executive Director of the state tourism agency. HB 3603 also gave the Governor the ability to hire and fire the agency’s executive director.

Thompson announced his intentions to file the bill in June, after the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation into the state agency’s contract with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen.

“We need accountability. We need checks and balances,” Thompson said in a news release. We are here for one purpose, and that is to protect the taxpayers’ money. Today, that's not being done.”

Lawmakers have scrutinized the tourism department for its multimillion-dollar management of fees, construction costs and reimbursements paid to Swadley’s Barbeque for renovating state park restaurants.

Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Jerry Winchester as the tourism agency's director in 2019. Winchester stepped down this year shortly after the state filed a lawsuit to recoup funds from Swadley’s.

Thompson’s bill also makes it harder for the Governor to remove commission members. While the Governor would maintain the power to appoint commission members, the introduced legislation states that the Governor could only remove members “with cause.”

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

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