OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) — The head of Oklahoma tourism has resigned from his position, and Gov. Kevin Stitt is pursuing a lawsuit against Swadley’s Bar-B-Q amid controversy surrounding the restaurant chain and the State of Oklahoma.
Gov. Kevin Stitt held a news conference Friday afternoon concerning the controversy. He announced that he accepted the resignation of Jerry Winchester, who had served as Executive Director of the Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department.
He said investigations into the matter are ongoing.
“We are committed to getting to the bottom of this. There are a lot of different investigations going on right now, and I think we can all agree that the most important things are protecting the taxpayers and shining a light on any corruption or any bad actors,” Stitt said.
Stitt also announced that the state filed a lawsuit against Swadley’s earlier Friday.
“We intend to protect the taxpayers by any and every means necessary,” he said.
The governor also said he has no relationship with Brent Swadley, the owner of the restaurant chain.
“I don’t know Brent Swadley. I have no involvement in this contract,” Stitt said.
Oklahoma state lawmakers on Thursday announced 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 raised 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.
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.”
Swadley’s previously issued the following response to the controversy:
“From the beginning, every aspect of the Foggy Bottom Kitchen project has been directed and approved by state officials. We stand by our team and all that we have done to benefit the people of our beautiful state.“
The chain issued the below statement on Friday ahead of Stitt’s news conference:
“Swadley’s is proud of the work it has done in Oklahoma’s beautiful state parks. As part of an effort to modernize those parks, Swadley’s entered into a contract with the Oklahoma State Tourism Department in March of 2020 to redesign, rebuild, and revitalize six restaurants on state park properties. Despite the logistical complexities presented by the location of these restaurant sites, Swadley’s completed its work on the six restaurants in less than two years.
From the beginning, Swadley’s acknowledged and accepted that this project would be a difficult undertaking, but the extent of the decay and neglect at the various restaurants made it more difficult than either party initially anticipated. For example, when Swadley’s employees went to conduct an initial assessment of the work needed at Robbers Cave State Park near Wilburton, park personnel provided Swadley’s staff with a case (not a can) of wasp spray so they could safely enter the dilapidated property. Because of the years of neglect causing mold and substantial decay to mechanical systems, the Robbers Cave State Park restaurant was in such bad shape that it required an unanticipated total rebuild.
Another unfortunate complication was the COVID-19 pandemic, which increased costs of labor and raw materials during this project and was accompanied by restrictions on indoor dining and a general decrease in restaurant traffic. Despite these immense challenges, Swadley’s completed and opened restaurants at Lake Murray, Beavers Bend, Quartz Mountain, Robbers Cave, Sequoyah, and Roman Nose. The ‘before and after’ pictures speak for themselves (see attached).
Swadley’s is proud of the hard work of our employees, which brought the amenities at these state parks in line with the breathtaking natural beauty our great state has to offer. Swadley’s leadership team is disappointed by the recent decision to terminate its contract, and heartbroken for the hundreds of employees whose livelihoods are directly impacted.”
Swadley’s previously stated that nearly 300 people will lose their jobs because of the contract being canceled.
Winchester was appointed the state’s tourism director in April 2019.
He submitted the following resignation letter on Friday:
Stitt said Winchester’s leadership was instrumental in raising the number of state park visitors from an average of 9.5 million to 12.5 million.
“Our state parks are on their way to becoming top 10, and I expect that momentum to continue,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, in his role as Secretary of Tourism, will take more oversight of the Tourism Department, according to Stitt.
“He will make sure the agency is properly managed and is taking all necessary steps to address any issues with vendors or staff,” Stitt said.
Stitt said he expects Pinnell to advise him in real time of any problems or policy changes that need to happen. Pinnell, as Cabinet Secretary, will be tasked with coordinating information gathering for the legislature.
Pinnell spoke during the news conference, saying the administration will lead the Tourism Department with humility, clarity and courage.
“Humility: We are going to make sure that we put the guardrails in place moving forward in this state agency, and I’ll work with the legislature and the Governor’s Office to institute those changes,” he said. “Clarity: We’re going to be fully transparent in this process, protecting taxpayers and the investment that we’ve made across the state of Oklahoma. And courage, courage to make the decisions needed. We’re not going to play politics with this. We’re going to make sure we have the courage to make the decisions and make the changes necessary to make our tourism industry in Oklahoma, as the governor said, top 10.”