Some DEQ board members spend tax dollars on travel

Most state agency heads in Oklahoma do not report to any elected official. Instead oversight comes from a board or commission.

"Board and commissions are supposed to allow the citizenry to have oversight of the bureaucracy," said State Representative Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie).

Murphey's comments came after we showed him the results of a Fox 25 Investigation into the Department of Environmental Quality's (or DEQ) spending.

In the case of the DEQ, we found the board members who are supposed to provide oversight, engaged in personal perks after they were appointed to the position.

Our investigation into the board members came after we found a number of hotel rooms paid for by tax dollars all over the state. The hotel rooms were purchased in all corners of Oklahoma including, Lawton, Enid, Stillwater and Bartlesville. We found out those rooms coincided with meetings of the board that oversees the DEQ. When we asked for an explanation, the agency said it was common practice to stay overnight when meetings are held out of town. Part of that reason is because at the bottom of every agenda is a note letting the public know board members and select DEQ staff will be meeting for dinner the night before the meetings.

"Service on boards shouldn't be seen as an opportunity for numerous perks, unnecessary travel, unnecessary overnight stays, unnecessary meals," Murphey told Fox 25, "That type of abuse is concerning."

The DEQ board is made up of members representing various stakeholders in environmental issues. The members live all over the state and quarterly meetings are held in different cities across Oklahoma in order to encourage input from citizens.

However at some point, no one could tell us when, the board voted to allow for private dinners the night before the meetings. The meeting notices do not advertise the location of the restaurant and say that it is not known if a majority of board members will be present. State law says a majority of board members are not allowed to meet if business is to be discussed. We will just have to take the board's word for it that they did not discuss any issues relating to the environment at these private dinners.

"It's always bad policy when board members socialize with those to whom they are supposed to provide oversight. That just shouldn't happen," Murphey said.

Because the meetings are out-of-town and the board authorized a dinner the night before, it also entitles any board members or staff who attend to claim "per diem" expenses. That can range from $41 to $61 a day depending on the location.

According to records filed by board members most DEQ meetings only last three or three-and-a-half hours. In a few cases when mileage, per diem and hotel expenses are added together some board members can end up with reimbursements that amount to nearly $100 per hour for the meeting.

Some records we reviewed indicated board members could not book their rooms at the designated hotels. That meant they lost the state discount. In one case you paid for a board member to stay in a nearly $200-a-night room in Oklahoma City. On another occasion, a board member who lives in Norman got the taxpayers to pay for her per diem and room in Oklahoma City the night before a board meeting.

"Service on state boards is about service. It's not about socializing, it's not travel claims, it's not about overnight stays in hotels. It's about true, honest-to-goodness sacrifice and service," Murphey told Fox 25.

The members of the DEQ board did not return our requests to comment on this story. We tried to reach them through the agency. We even tried to contact others by cell phone or at their place of employment.

The DEQ says the agency would not be speaking with us about any spending concerns until after a state audit is released.

We also contacted the governor's office, who appoints board members. No one with the governor would give us any comment on our findings or answer questions about our concerns over how your tax dollars are spent.

We should note that not every board member over the past few years has taken part in the free hotel rooms and meals.