Are your taxes paying for big ticket trips for state agencies?
From Las Vegas to Paris, France, your tax dollars are sending state employees on free trips all around the world. Some state lawmakers say enough is enough and want agencies to take a second look at their travel plans.
"Just a cursory review of the amount of money that is being spent on hotels and travel and lodging indicates that it is massive it's out of control," said State Representative Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie.
Murphey in an outspoken advocate for government transparency and state travel claims are just one example of why he believes transparency is good for lawmakers and taxpayers. It allows everyone the chance to see how state agencies are spending money. In this case, anyone can review state spending by going to data.ok.gov. Our story began by searching the "P-Card" data sets, which records every transaction of the state's debit cards, known as "purchase cards." From there we simply filtered the results to eliminate everything but vendors that had "casino" in their name. As it turns out, this wasn't an exhaustive list of all casino spending but it did show that state agencies spent more than $30,000 on rooms and other purchases at casinos both in Oklahoma and around the country.
For example, Oklahoma State University spent more than a thousand dollars on customized room keys at a university sponsored conference at a resort. The university says the conference OSU was putting on was co-sponsored by another company which contributed a donation that was in excess of the amount OSU spent getting personalized room keys.
The attorney general's office sent employees to two continuing education legal classes. The office attended two events in Vegas, one conference covered "Lethal and Less Lethal Force" legal issue; the second program was titled "Jail and Prisoner Legal Issues." The Attorney Generals office said the "cost of these seminars are extremely reasonable." And the courses were necessary for the continuing education of state attorneys.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Services paid for one its employees to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Vegas. The office said the conferences sponsors offered to pay, but OMES declined since that sponsor sometimes bids on state contracts and the office wanted to avoid any conflicts of interest.
The Department of Rehabilitative Services attended two conferences in Las Vegas. The agency said the travel was beneficial because it allowed their employees to learn the skills to improve the quality of service they are able to provide to clients.
But beyond casinos, Fox 25 began looking at other travel after finding a receipt for a resort in Acapulco, Mexico. That trip was paid for by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. An open records request revealed even more similar travel, including the $34,000 price tag the state paid to participate in another oil conference south of the border. The Commerce Department said both trips allowed the state to help Oklahoma companies rent booth space at the international petroleum conferences. The companies had a desire and ability to expand their operations but, according to the commerce department, could not pay their own way to a conference.
"The direct benefit to taxpayers is that Oklahoma companies get an opportunity to market their company...their products, their wares to another market and expand their market and increase opportunities for employment to Oklahomans," said Commerce spokesman Don Hackler.
Hackler said the agency has cut back on travel in recent years and cut down on the number of people sent to conferences. However the state still sends representatives to places like Paris, France; Milan, Italy; and Helsinki, Finland. Hackler said some of the trips are paid for with 'nonappropriated' dollars.
"It's an important opportunity to us to be there to potentially market Oklahoma as an additional location," Hackler said.
However, the records indicate "selling" companies, or their corporate site locators, on the idea of moving to Oklahoma does not always mean showing off our state. Multiple trips show state employees are wining and dining corporate site locators or executives in cities across the country. Hackler said trips like these allow Commerce to meet more people in a corporation, but said that many times the state only meets with third parties and are rarely told which companies they represent.
"Expensive trips that are outside of the country should justify special review and they should very rarely, if ever, be authorized by state agencies there just aren't very many good reasons for outside of the country trips," said Representative Murphey who believes agencies should be doing more to cut back on expensive travel.
Beyond trips that involve selling Oklahoma, or even promoting Oklahoma companies, we found one expense report that was different than all the others; a trip to Disney. The state footed the nearly $8,000 registration fee for two employees to attend a workshop that taught them how Mickey and the gang do customer service. The training included hands on experiences in the field at Walt Disney World Resort. The program lasted several days, though other similar programs offered by Disney are available at locations closer to Oklahoma at a reduced cost. The state also said no one at any of Oklahoma's own universities could provide similar management or customer service training.
"Their [Disney's] programs that they run are extremely good; they are very, very time consuming and our staff the two staff people that went reported back that the training was very, very beneficial," Hackler said, but he could not provide an example of what was learned or how it benefited the state of Oklahoma.
"If a state agency has thousands of dollars that send employees to Disney World then they have too much money," Murphey said when he learned of the Disney training expense.
Hackler disagrees and said the agency has several unmet needs, but those needs could not be filled by cutting back on travel. He said he would welcome meeting with any members of the legislature to explain the travel expenses of the agency.