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Capitol Insider: Tourism and Recreation Department executive director resigns as House of Representatives launches probe

Roman Nose State Park
Lori Duckworth/Oklahoma Tourism
Roman Nose State Park

One day after the speaker of the house announced formation of a special committee to investigate a contract between the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and a restaurant providing food services at six state parks, the agency's executive director, Jerry Winchester, resigned and Governor Kevin Stitt announced the state has filed a lawsuit against Swadley's Foggy Bottom Kitchen for breach of contract.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with Quorum Call publisher Shawn Ashley. Speaker of the House Charles McCall has formed a special committee to investigate potential misuse of taxpayer funds and a state contract with Swadley’s Barbecue (Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen, LLC) through the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. Shawn, this is a complicated story involving restaurants at six state parks. What is the committee looking into?

Shawn Ashley: Well, based on Speaker McCall's remarks and comments by Representative Ryan Martinez, who will chair the committee, three things really seem to be the primary focus. First, the unusual selection process for the state parks concessionaire, which resulted in Swadley’s being the only bidder on the project, an issue Martinez raised in the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) Oversight Committee meeting in March. Second, what Martinez has called, more than once, the sweetheart deal for Swadley’s that guaranteed the company against losses at those restaurants. And third, potential overbilling. The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency report showed the department was charged above market prices for a variety of products and services like smokers. And the report also showed Swadley’s added management and consultant fees to some purchases that further increased the cost up to 30%. The report showed the potential for millions of dollars in excess costs.

Dick Pryor: How does the committee plan to conduct its investigation and what is the timeline?

Shawn Ashley: Martinez said the majority of the hearings will be conducted in public. They will only be closed if it's necessary to protect the identity of whistleblowers. And he said the committee could use its statutory subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify and produce documents if necessary. A timeline has not yet been set. The Legislature is entering the final month of the legislative session. It doesn't yet have a budget, and that could mean a busy four weeks for lawmakers. So, it could be a little while before we see that first meeting.

Dick Pryor: We don't see these investigative committees very often. It's a bold move, especially in an election year. Does the formation of this special committee tell us something about the potential severity of this issue?

Shawn Ashley: I think it does. The last special investigation committee was created in 2017 after financial problems at the State Department of Health. Now, like then, there potentially are millions of dollars at stake, and that is a concern for Speaker McCall and Representative Martinez. I think, too, they want to know and may be concerned about the impact of a 2018 law that made the tourism commission an advisory panel rather than an actual governing board and gave the governor the authority to appoint the agency's director who had almost full control over the agency, its operations, and finances.

Dick Pryor: The Legislature continues to send to the governor bills intended to further restrict and essentially eliminate access to abortions in Oklahoma. On Thursday, the House approved and sent to the Governor SB 1503, which creates the Oklahoma Heartbeat Act. And that bill is already receiving a legal challenge.

Shawn Ashley: Yes, the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has successfully challenged a number of other anti-abortion bills in Oklahoma, filed the lawsuit shortly after the House passed the bill on Thursday. They're asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court for an injunction to prevent the bill, which prohibits abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected and allows civil lawsuits against those who perform abortions after that time, from taking effect.

Dick Pryor: We don't talk too much about gubernatorial vetoes, but Governor Stitt’s veto of Senate Bill 176 is interesting. It would allow state employees extra time to take their leave before losing it. That bill overwhelmingly passed both houses. There are 33,000 state employees and legislators considered this is a way to thank them for their work during the pandemic by allowing more time to take their earned leave, which is a definite benefit of employment. Why did Governor Stitt veto that bill, and what's the response?

Shawn Ashley: Well, the governor noted state employees already had received one extension to use their excessive leave and that another could potentially be costly to state agencies. Representative Tommy Hardin noted a staff analysis indicated there was no to little fiscal impact associated with the bill. Senator Frank Simpson, the Senate author of the bill, said he was disappointed by the veto and called it the ultimate insult to state employees. Simpson added, “This bill will not negatively impact taxpayers or state agencies unless our state employees quit from the governor's inconsiderate veto and unfair treatment.”

Dick Pryor: That's a strong statement.

Shawn Ashley: Very strong.

Dick Pryor: Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: We would like to hear from you. Email your questions to news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @QuorumCallShawn. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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