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House committee questions Oklahoma tourism officials over alleged financial mismanagement

OKLAHOMA CITY - Two top officials from the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department have been questioned Monday over a possible mismanagement of state funds.

Committee chair Rep. Josh Cockroft called executive director Dick Dutton and deputy director Claudia Conner to testify before lawmakers on Monday morning.

According to Cockroft, the committee received information the department moved and used funds out of improper accounts. Payments ranged from a couple hundred dollars to several thousands, according to Cockcroft.

"They had moved for some settlement payments and other payments to advertising agencies and things like that, that were moved through a clearing account instead of a general appropriations account," he said. "Our concern with that is that a clearing account is much less accessible and accountable to see exactly what kind of payments are being used out of it. So, when you’re writing a check out of a clearing account, it doesn’t necessarily show up on the agency’s accounts."

Cockroft said, so far, they're aware of four settlement payments which were paid out to individuals in various state parks. He said agencies are authorized to make settlement payments; however, they need to be made out of the right account.

Dutton told the committee, about 10 years ago, a decision was made to stop internal auditing. He said this was a decision made by a former executive director for unknown reasons.

"Without an internal auditor checking us, checking our systems, making sure where we’re at… I think that was one reason why things weren’t coming up sooner," Dutton said. "Ten years without oversight, correction and review is honestly something I have never experienced before."

Rep. Chad Caldwell questioned the agency over a report which highlighted concerns from employees, including claims of unfair treatment.

"Multiple employees felt as though they were being spied on and they needed to be careful about what was spoken within earshot of staff who reported directly to executive managers," Caldwell read. "This view is reinforced by the fact that one senior manager’s door is prominently decorated with a large sign that states ‘Let’s just assume I’m never wrong.'"

Conner, who admitted the sign was her's, said that has also been taken care of.

"That sign has been removed because, if it scares one person, I don’t want it to be up there. I took it as funny, and I think everybody else did," she testified.

The same committee is investigating the Oklahoma State Department of Health's finances, as well. In December, a number of officials were questioned under oath detailing their understanding of how the agency mismanaged $30 million.

In early January, Cockcroft announced the committee would expand their investigation into the Department of Tourism and Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES). With the next session scheduled to begin next Monday while the legislature is still in the special session, Cockcroft said they will have to find time to meet with agency officials.