Correction: Two typos in the original story have been fixed.
OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Are Oklahoma state parks overspending on improvements? What about the millions of dollars of taxpayer money going to a private BBQ business to run park restaurants? Those concerns have prompted a criminal investigation.
Tourism officials said years of neglect have left Oklahoma state parks in need of millions of extra dollars in upgrades, but some state legislators said recent law changes have let the department make questionable spending decisions away from public spotlight.
“Park’s investment strategy is negatively impacting the parks system’s financial feasibility,” said Mike Jackson, executive director of the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT).
LOFT laid out to lawmakers the results of their four month investigation into, “a significant growth in expenditures,” by the Oklahoma Department of Tourism. Two years ago, the Oklahoma State Legislature approved close to $50 million in bonds for capital improvements to state parks. Since then the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) has 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,” said Senator Julia Kirt, D-District 30.
The democrat from Oklahoma City was one of the lawmakers questioning OTRD director Jerry Winchester about the spending.
“Well, those things get expensive as you work through this,” said Winchester.
OTRD declined an interview, but issued the following statement to KFOR on Monday:
“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.”
The LOFT report drew on hours of questions from lawmakers and 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 over $2 million to cover operating losses in 2021.
“You have to have a restaurant to have a functioning lodge. We aren’t going to send our guests at a lodge ten miles down the road to eat a “roller dog” at a gas station,” said Winchester.
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.
“You are telling me that this offer was made to all kinds of different restaurants and vendors saying, ‘hey come open this operation. It doesn’t matter how you perform and how much food you sell. You are going to have your losses covered,’ and people weren’t lining up to take that deal?“ said Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-District 39.
“Have we entered an area where we are subsidizing a business rather than subsidizing access to our state parks?” asked Sen. Kirt.
The findings prompted the Oklahoma County District Attorney, David Prater, to ask for the OSBI to investigate allegations of potential criminal conduct between the State of Oklahoma and Swadley’s.
Lt. Governor Matt Pinnell, who is also the Secretary of Tourism, issued the following statement:
“The State relies on public/private partnerships to fulfill agency objectives and obligations. There are laws and rules governing the contracting and RFP process, and I expect agencies to follow those procedures. I take any allegation of misuse of taxpayer dollars very seriously.”
Some lawmakers said these issues are part of a deeper problem. In 2019, the Oklahoma legislature passed laws so the governor could oversee departments like tourism instead of a commission.
“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,” said Sen. Kirt.
Governor Stitt’s office declined to comment on the situation. KFOR reached out to Swadley’s for a comment but we have received no response to our requests as of the publishing of this story.