Education officials accused of using slush fund for conference

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Just months after the former state schools superintendent was accused of using secret bank accounts to fund hotel stays and lavish parties, similar allegations are launched once again.

The state auditor is accusing state education officials of spending slush fund money to pay for a summer conference held last year by current state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi.

Officials with the state Education Department said Barresi requested this audit after hearing about her predecessor's controversial audit this past spring.

"In this time of shrinking education budgets and those sorts of things, we want to put as much money out into the classrooms, to help teachers, as we can," Education Department Chief of Staff Joel Robison said Tuesday.

Robison said their office wanted to avoid spending more than $200,000 of taxpayers' money on last year's annual education conference at the Cox Convention Center.

But he said they made a mistake while forming a non-profit organization to raise that money because they looked to how Barresi's predecessor, Sandy Garrett, raised money.

"We kind of relied on those same practices when we came in," Robison said. "We just assumed that was the correct way of doing it."

"If there are state employees that solicit and collect money, it should go into a state account," State Auditor Gary Jones said.

Jones said the education department did not follow the law when they directed an employee to set up a non-profit organization called The Oklahoma Foundation for Innovation in Education and serve on its board along with her uncle and a friend.

That board never met and never voted on bylaws.

There also was no contract defining the state's and non-profit's responsibilities.

"If it's a non-profit that's setting this up, then there needs to be a clear distinction that that's a non-profit doing it but if you have state employees doing that and performing those activities on state time, then there's where you get into a problem," Jones said. "You can't co-mingle public and private funds."

In the end, the 2011 State Department Innovation Conference cost taxpayers almost $16,500.

The Attorney General's office confirmed Tuesday they are reviewing the audit but Robison doesn't believe they'll find intentional wrongdoing.

"Unfortunately, sometimes those intentions can get kind of steered off into other directions and it, at least, gives the perception of unfair practices," he said. 

Superintendent Barresi was unavailable for comment Tuesday but the Education Department released this statement:

"Superintendent Barresi accepts the findings of the State Auditor`s report... This summer, she implemented new policies and trained leadership staff members to ensure the agency is in full compliance with the law and operating with the utmost accountability and transparency."

The new audit shows the majority of money raised came from conference vendors, some of whom had lucrative contracts with the Education Department, which is a possible conflict of interest also noted in the previous audit.

Robison said all future donations will now go through the Education Department's website, then to the State Board of Education for approval.

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