House committee investigates tourism department
By Rep. Danny Williams
Last month, I was appointed by President McCall to a special House committee to investigate the potential misuse of taxpayers’ money through supplier deals with the Department of Tourism and Oklahoman Recreation.
This was prompted by a report of alleged improper business practices by Swadley’s Bar-BQ locations at six state parks, including charging inflated prices for equipment and staffing the Department of Tourism. Since the contract began in the summer of 2020, the state has paid Swadley about $16.7 million in management fees and reimbursements, but the fees generally lack receipts.
After a March report by the Legislative Office of Budget Transparency (LOFT) showed sloppy accounting, lawmakers began to wonder how the contracts came into being and how the money flowed between the state and Swadley’s. The Department of Tourism has since canceled the contract with Swadley’s, and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation confirmed in April that it was opening a criminal investigation.
The bipartisan, 15-member House Special Investigative Committee will examine the circumstances surrounding this contract, which gave Brent Swadley generous terms and extraordinary power, as well as other uses of public resources. The job of law enforcement is to determine if the laws have been broken, but the job of this committee is to determine if the laws need to change.
The committee has the power to compel witnesses and records through subpoenas if its requests to voluntarily comply are not granted, and testimony at hearings will be provided under oath. Last week, the committee served two subpoenas on the directors of the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) and the Office of Management and Business Services (OMES).
On Thursday, the special commission of inquiry met for the first time.
The committee first heard from Mike Jackson, Director of LOFT. Jackson Oklahoma taxpayers could have saved $12.4 million if good practices had been followed. One concern he reported was a bill for an $11,000 cheese melter, but during their research, LOFT could not find such a device by the manufacturer that cost more than $5,500.
Jackson also showed a refund of 93,000 miles during the month of September, which he says is roughly equivalent to flying around the world multiple times. For more context, the total length of Route 66, which begins in Chicago and ends in Santa Monica, is 2,400 miles, which means that Swadley charged the state for mileage equivalent to driving the entire length of Route 66 more than 38 times.
OMES director Steven Harpe was also summoned last week for Thursday’s meeting, but was previously due to travel out of the country for his honeymoon. In his place, Brandy Manek, director of gaming budget, policy and compliance, was present instead. The committee will interview Harpe at a later date.
We want to make sure the investigation is thorough and uncovers every stone, so we’ll follow where the evidence leads us. We need to get to the bottom of this issue so taxpayers know where their tax dollars are going. Oklahomaians deserve to trust the government agencies that spend their tax dollars.
Representative Danny Williams, a Republican, represents House District 28 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Its district includes Seminole County and northern Pottawatomie County.