OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The Chairman of the State Senate Appropriations Committee is putting together legislation to restore power to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commission – an action taken after a recent controversy involving multimillion dollar state contracts with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen.
The legislation, written by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, includes giving the commission the ability to hire and fire the agency’s executive director, as well as restoring commission oversight of contracts and financial expenditures, according to a State Senate news release.
“Our responsibility is to the citizens of Oklahoma – the taxpayers who are footing the bills at Tourism,” Thompson said. “My legislation will restore important oversight powers previously assigned to that agency’s commission, providing a critical check and balance in how taxpayer dollars are used.”
The State Legislature in 2018 approved legislation that transferred most of the commission’s power to the executive director, transforming the commission into an advisory panel.
The 2018 legislation also gave the governor the exclusive ability to hire and fire the commission’s executive director, and removed the requirement for the commission to meet at least quarterly. The commission has met only three times – July and October of 2019 and January of 2020 – since that legislation became law in 2019.
The findings in a Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) report on the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department’s spending, including controversial expenditures and contracts with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen, show the urgent need to restore the commission’s authority, according to Thompson.
“The commission hasn’t even really functioned as an advisory board as had been intended,” Thompson said. “The legislation I’m writing will put guardrails back in place, restore the oversight powers of the commission, and help ensure greater scrutiny of the use of public resources.”
A report by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency released in mid-April raised concerns about a four-month investigation into significant expenditure growth by the Tourism and Recreation Department.
The report focused on lawmaker concerns over a contract with Swadley’s.
Officials say the Tourism and Recreation Department paid $13 million to Swadley’s Bar-B-Q restaurants to renovate and run the Foggy Bottom Kitchens in certain Oklahoma state parks.
Tourism and Recreation Department officials recently announced that the department was canceling the lease concession agreement with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen.
Department officials said they started an internal investigation in the fall of 2021 after “reports of financial irregularities were brought to our attention.”
The legislation will be available for consideration in the 2023 legislative session, Thompson said.