A House special investigative committee held its first meeting this past week to look into a contract between the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) and Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen. It looks as if this cost the state $12.4 million in improperly disbursed taxpayer funds.

Swadley’s was contracted to operate restaurants at six state parks. But a report by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) shows requests for reimbursements may have been greatly inflated and the contract itself did not go through the normal request for proposal process.

LOFT’s report suggests Swadley’s may have charged the state numerous times for the same travel expenses. Records also show the business charged varying management and consulting fees in addition to what was allowed in the state contract. That’s on top of what looks like some outrageous prices for restaurant equipment and furnishings.

LOFT’s director Mike Jackson said had the Tourism Department recognized best practices and had better financial controls in place, taxpayer dollars might have been better protected.

The OTRD and Swadley’s are now under criminal investigation as well. The contract has since been voided, and the executive director of tourism, Jerry Winchester, has resigned.

The 15-member bipartisan House committee will not impede the criminal investigation, but it is our job as lawmakers to ensure money appropriated to state agencies is a valid use of taxpayer dollars. Tourism is a great driver of the economy in our state, and our state parks are gems we want to promote and protect. But paying more than $11,600 for a cheese melter , for instance, or travel expenses for 93,000 miles in one month – an amount equivalent to circumnavigating the globe four times – is just exorbitant.

The House committee subpoenaed LOFT’s director to testify at Thursday’s meeting. Also subpoenaed was Office of Management and Enterprise Service’s director Steven Harpe. Harpe did not appear, however, as he was on a honeymoon trip out of state. Several committee members questioned the timing of the trip by one of the governor’s top budget negotiators during a week when the Legislature and the governor are typically in the very last stages of negotiating the state budget for the next fiscal year. The committee will have to hear from Harpe at a different time.

In his place, Harpe sent Brandy Manek, director of budget, policy and gaming compliance at OMES. Her testimony was disappointing as she revealed the department only looks to make sure agencies don’t exceed the budget appropriated to them but they don’t actually examine how money is spent. Makes me glad we formed LOFT to serve as a watchdog over agency spending, but makes me want to reevaluate OMES’ role in state government.

Please feel free to contact me at marcus.mcentire@okhouse.gov or (405) 557-7327.