OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Oklahoma state lawmakers say they are preparing to form a special committee to investigate potential misuse of taxpayer funds through vendor agreements with the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.
Earlier this month, a report by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency was raising eyebrows about a four-month investigation into significant expenditure growth by the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.
The report focused on lawmaker concerns regarding a contract with Swadley’s Bar-B-Q restaurants.
Officials say the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department has paid $13 million to Swadley’s Bar-B-Q restaurants to renovate and run the Foggy Bottom Kitchens in certain Oklahoma state parks.
After the cost of the contract was brought to light, several lawmakers and state officials have expressed concerns.
On Monday, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department announced that it was canceling the lease concession agreement with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen.
According to the statement, the department said it was canceling the contract due to “suspected fraudulent activity and questionable business practices.”
The department said it started an internal investigation in the fall of 2021 after “reports of financial irregularities were brought to our attention.”
Officials say financial payments for construction costs were stopped in September, and management fees were suspended in December.
“After extensive review, it has become clear the continuation of the agreement with Foggy Bottom Kitchen is not in the best interest of Oklahoma taxpayers. While the transition won’t be easy, our first duty is to safeguard taxpayer funds,” the department said in a statement.
On Thursday, House Speaker Charles McCall formed a special House committee to investigate potential misuse of taxpayer funds through vendor agreements with the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.
At public hearings next month, the bipartisan House Special Investigative Committee will review the circumstances surrounding the contract and other concerning uses of public resources.
“We have zero tolerance for abuse of tax dollars,” McCall said. “Law enforcement’s job is determining if laws were broken, This committee’s job is determining if laws need to change to protect against future abuses of resources by state agencies. The committee will pursue the truthful answers needed for the Legislature to perform our oversight and policymaking duties in a manner that does not interfere with the active law enforcement investigations.”
“The contract alone reeked from top to bottom, and continuing revelations about the activities surrounding it have been even more troubling,” said Rep. Ryan Martinez. “There have been too many incomplete, inconsistent answers to legitimate questions about how millions of tax dollars were spent. This committee will exercise proper legislative authority to get the full truth and provide the accountability necessary to remedy the situation.”
The committee may compel witnesses and records through subpoenas if voluntary requests are rejected.
“Extremely troubling elements of the agency’s arrangements with this vendor have not been adequately addressed by those involved. We intend to get a full explanation for the taxpaying public,” McCall said.
Governor Kevin Stitt released the following statement after the committee was formed:
“I have called for more audits than any other governor in state history and welcome the Legislature joining me to protect the taxpayers and shine a light on any kind of corruption or bad actors involved in state government. The state does business with more than 4,600 companies and I welcome a review of each one to provide maximum transparency for Oklahomans.”Governor Kevin Stitt
Swadley’s officially declined our requests for a formal interview, but put out a statement late Monday afternoon saying,
“Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen is alarmed and dismayed that the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, in a letter delivered by Executive Director Jerry Winchester, has today unilaterally terminated our contract and accused us of ‘fraudulent activity’ without offering any evidence to reinforce that accusation or a chance to defend ourselves. As a result of Tourism’s decision, we will be forced to eliminate the positions of close to 300 employees who have worked hard to make these new restaurants successful. We are heartbroken for these employees, and we will continue to defend the quality of our work against these unfair attacks on our business.”SWADLEY’S BAR-B-Q