OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) — The controversial deal between the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and Swadley’s Bar-B-Q restaurants took center stage at the State Capitol Thursday, as the first House Special Investigative Committee hearing took place.
“This is just the beginning,” said Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, the committee chairman.
A report by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, LOFT, conducted a four-month investigation into significant expenditure growth by the Oklahoma Tourism Department.
Officials say the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department has paid $13 million to Swadley’s to renovate and run the Foggy Bottom Kitchens in certain 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.
“There seems to have been a lack of oversight at some level throughout this entire process,” said Rep. Jay Steagall, R-Yukon.
LOFT’s executive director, Mike Jackson, was the first to speak in front of the committee. He detailed, perhaps troubling, expenditures by the tourism department.
“We found pretty quickly that the amount that was being expended for food and beverage was $5.97 million in fiscal year 2021, compared to $50,000 in just for the average 10 years prior,” said Jackson.
Another point of note, detailed by Jackson, is that Foggy Bottom employees were given nearly $130,000 in bonuses in total in one year, despite the business not making a profit.
“The interesting thing is, as they served more and more people, we actually observed that the loss was actually becoming greater,” said Jackson.
Expenses could have been curbed, according to Jackson. LOFT found similar models of meat smokers, purchased by Swadley’s for $60,000, online for $25,000. He cited over-charged prices for materials, including tile priced at $100 per square foot.
The absence of the second person subpoenaed Thursday, Executive Director of OMES, Steven Harpe, did not sit right with committee members. According to a social media post Harpe is tagged in, he is out of the country.
“To take time to go to the Virgin Islands at this point is a little worrisome and concerning,” said Rep. Martinez.
Rep. Steagall called the move “egregious.”
Brandy Manek, OMES Director of Budget, Policy and Communications, filled in his place.
It was revealed during the hearing that OMES has not fully complied with the subpoena from the committee. Some of the documents requested have been delivered but not all.
In a letter to House Speaker Charles McCall, who called for the special legislative investigation dated May 6, OMES general counsel stated Executive Director Steven Harpe would be out of state on his honeymoon. The letter goes on to say the remaining documents in the committee’s subpoena were being gathered and would be made available to lawmakers.
More from Jackson revealed that Swadley’s had 59 subcontractors working for them. LOFT did not find any history of Swadley’s as a general contractor.
Representative Martinez said he expects some of those subcontractors to be subpoenaed.
The date for the next hearing is still undecided.
“We’re going to probably get through these last couple of weeks of session, but we will be working through the interim,” said Rep. Martinez. “So, we’re going to be deciding where we go next, but I imagine we’re going to have a busy interim.”