OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell says the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department will amend its contract with a Swadley’s Bar-B-Q affiliate following growing lawmaker concern and a criminal investigation, according to NonDoc.
NonDoc’s recent article on the matter states Pinnell, who works as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s tourism secretary and has an advisory role with the Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD), announced the change days after the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency issued a report criticizing OTRD’s expenses and the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen contract in particular.
A Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) report issued last week showed state lawmakers the findings from a four-month investigation into significant expenditure growth by OTRD.
The report drew from hours of lawmaker questions specifically about a contract Oklahoma Tourism signed paying $13 million so far to Swadley’s Bar-B-Q restaurants to renovate and run the Foggy Bottom Kitchens in select Oklahoma state parks. Those payments include $2.1 million to cover operating losses in 2021. The current contract requires the state to pay up to $1.2 million for annual operating losses.
Pinnell said conversations to change the contract are ongoing, according to NonDoc.
Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) showed state lawmakers the findings from a four-month investigation into significant expenditure growth by OTRD.
The Oklahoma State Legislature approved close to $50 million in bonds for capitol improvements to state parks two years ago. The Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) has since reportedly asked for another $19.3 million.
“When it comes to taxpayer money, we have to be very careful we are not a ‘for profit’ amusement park,” Senator Julia Kirt, D-District 30, said last week.
Kirt questioned OTRD Director Jerry Winchester about the spending.
“Well, those things get expensive as you work through this,” Winchester said.
OTRD officials declined an interview with KFOR last week, but did issue the following statement:
“Over the last two years, the Department has invested heavily in updating the state park system after decades of deferred maintenance due to underfunding. Oklahomans deserve a high quality state park system and we aim to continue our efforts to make that a reality. While being good stewards of taxpayer dollars, the Department has seen the installation of more than 100 new bathroom and shower units, modernization of RV sites across the state and critical infrastructure improvements. We respect the Legislature’s important agency oversight role and look forward to working together to continue improving the park system.”Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Spokesperson
Tourism officials said state park lodge restaurants have constantly lost money over the years. They said of the 25 businesses approached, Swadley’s was the only one that bid on the contract.
The LOFT findings prompted David Prater, Oklahoma County District Attorney, to request an OSBI investigation into alleged potential criminal conduct between the State of Oklahoma and Swadley’s.
Some lawmakers said these issues are part of a deeper problem. The Oklahoma legislature passed laws in 2019 so the governor, instead of a commission, could oversee departments like tourism.
“That concerns me because we are not seeing things like decisions about big contracts. Decisions about priorities and strategies are not being decided in a public manner,” Kirt said last week.