Oklahoma DEQ travel spending questioned
This mission of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, is to protect, preserve and restore the water, land and air of the state. A Fox 25 review of records at the DEQ found those responsible for carrying out that mission spend a lot of time and money traveling.
We requested travel vouchers and expenditures from the DEQ for the past several years. The DEQ was able to provide detailed reports for the last four years of travel under the direction of former DEQ Director Steve Thompson.
All the travel we found was legal, and allowable under state law, but we found expenditures that some lawmakers say need to be looked at a little closer.
"There are many opportunities for abuse with out-of-state travel," said State Representative Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie), "Agency officials who engage in that travel should do so very cautiously and very conservatively."
According to the travel reports, Thompson would often use tax dollars to rent cars and pay for vehicle upgrades during out-of-town trips. Many times these rentals occurred when he was attending environmental conferences held at luxury resorts and hotels. Those conference agendas indicate there were no meetings that occurred off site.
During on meeting of the Environmental Council of the States, Thompson spent nearly $400 on a rental car in California. We called the hotel and were told there is a bus available. That was backed up by the expense reports filed by another DEQ staff member on the same trip. She reported taking the "Airport Express," which cost just $25 each way.
According to online carbon calculators, flying two state employees to this environmental conference created about one metric ton of carbon equivalent emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency's website says that's equal to just less than half a ton of garbage dumped in a landfill instead of being recycled.
At another meeting in New Hampshire, Thompson arrived two days prior to any actual meetings. State law allows agency employees on official business to arrive 24 hours ahead of time. However, since the meeting's agenda included a "bonfire" social event prior to the meeting kickoff, it allowed for your tax dollars to pick Thompson's $162 hotel room for the night.
When the Environmental Federation of Oklahoma met in Tulsa, your tax dollars paid for Thompson's $120 hotel room while he attended the "hospitality room." Thompson delivered opening remarks for the conference, but his records show he never attended the second day of the two-day conference.
As director, Thompson traveled around the state and the travel vouchers indicate he often drove his personal car even when the state's "Trip Optimizer" showed it would be cheaper to use a fleet car from the state's motor pool. We could find no records that indicated that, while he oversaw environmental policy, Thompson ever drove around the state in the more environmentally friendly CNG cars.
"The Fox 25 findings of DEQ spend are alarming," Murphey said, "They need to be addressed and they point out a big opening and opportunity for savings."
Thompson is now retired. He declined our request for an on camera interview, but did talk with us over the phone about his spending and travel. Thompson said he never broke any laws and his travel all fell within state guidelines. This is not something we disputed, but when asked if some of his travel choices were appropriate he told us that anyone could use better judgment on occasion.
However, Thompson said the out-of-state meetings are vital for the agency and are a chance for state environmental directors to meet with EPA officials.
The state auditor's office is conducting a review of the DEQ at the request of the governor. The governor's office said the audit was triggered by a change in leadership.
The DEQ declined our request for an interview and said they would not comment until the audit is finished.