Capitol controversy as state cuts out Oklahoma producer in favor of foreign imports
OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) —
The capitol renovation could end up forcing you to pay for human rights violations. A new contract is calling into question where the supplies are coming from to rebuild Oklahoma’s state house. The issue is with the $3.5 million flooring project.
Initially the state wanted to go with an Oklahoma supplier and even visited the Polycor quarry in Marble City. Marble City’s quarries have been producing stone longer than Oklahoma has been a state.
“We were about to that little ledge over there and all this was one level down when I started here four years ago,” Bobby Taylor explained as he walked through the pit of the marble quarry just north of Marble city.
“These are the only jobs around here,” Taylor explained. He was born and raised in the eastern Oklahoma community.
At one point there were half a dozen quarries operating in and around Marble City. The quarries have been providing good jobs to people who live in the area for generations. Without them, the town wouldn’t exist and the people would either have to move or find work across the state line to support their families.
“I’m glad to be working here,” Taylor said, “I’m glad to know that my great, great grandfather worked here.” Taylor’s great-great grandfather helped make quarry some of the stone from the step-like side of the quarry that is still visible today. That was in the 1800s, today modern techniques and exploration has led the quarry north into a better quality stone than has ever been produced at that location.
“It would be something to know that this rock we cut out of here would go somewhere really important,” Taylor said.
One place you won't find the Oklahoma stone is on the floor of a newly remodeled state capitol building. The subcontractor is doing exactly what state officials have been begging regular Oklahomans not to do for years, they are buying a cheaper product that is made in China.
The state claims a bid that included Oklahoma stone from the Polycor quarry for the project came in more than $2 million over the maximum amount for the flooring part of the restoration work.
The state says they allowed the contractor to let the bids out a second time and no subcontractor chose the Oklahoma stone. In fact, according to records obtained by FOX 25, the contractors requested and received special exemptions to allow them use foreign sourced materials.
The winning bid came in $10,000 under the $3.5 million magic number.
In reality though, the cost of Oklahoma’s imported stone could be much higher than anyone involved in the project may know.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Services oversees the capitol restoration work and the millions of dollars at stake. Officials with OMES has refused multiple requests to do interviews about the flooring controversy. They say state officials are not responsible for decisions made in restoring the people’s building.
This is not the first time OMES has refused to do interviews on controversial subjects. The office also refused requests for interviews about emails exchanged in advance of the passing of an unconstitutional budget and would not answer questions about public records the office may have illegally withheld.
“The state’s responsibility in this matter is to ensure the project is completed within the allotted budget, ensure that all applicable bidding laws were followed, and ensure the quality of the workmanship and materials used on the Capitol Restoration Project,” said Shelley Zumwalt the media contact for OMES whose official title is the Director of Public Affairs for the Office of Governor Mary Fallin and OMES.
“As I stated before, the state and OMES have no relationship with the subcontractor in this situation. Therefore, we would have done our due diligence as directed by Title 61, to take additional action would be outside of the scope of our role in the process,” Zumwalt wrote in an email.
FOX 25 had requested records from OMES about any research the agency had done on the quarry conditions from where subcontractors plan to source their material. The agency provided no records and did not answer any questions about the use of tax dollars to support foreign quarries.
However, there is plenty of research available online that paints a troubling picture of what Oklahoma tax dollars will ultimately be supporting.
International human rights groups have called conditions in Chinese quarry similar to modern day slavery and sometimes tainted with child labor.
According to documents provided by OMES, the winning bid plans to use a company that also receives stone from mines in India, another country that watchdog groups say relies on child labor. These mines often lack safety measures to ensure workers do not get sick. According to research by SwedWatch, many mines do not provide safety equipment to workers unless they pay for it.
In addition to potentially funding human rights violations, the importing of stone could end up costing the state even more money. Zumwalt told FOX 25 that even though the state is ultimately signing the checks, they have little oversight of the subcontractor process. This means the state cannot ensure that anyone importing cheaper foreign stone is paying taxes on it.
Ideally, the subcontractor would pay use tax. That is something the state has long bemoaned regarding internet purchases made by regular Oklahomans that avoided state sales tax. OMES says it may never know if the state is losing out on tax dollars with the Capitol Restoration Project.
In the end though, it is the human costs that are most troubling to workers like Bobby Taylor. He would like people at the capitol to remember that he and his co-workers all live and work in Oklahoma and support families by producing a product. Taylor and the company he works for pay taxes and keep their community afloat.
“As the Mayor of the Town of Marble City, and as a lifelong resident of Oklahoma, it is very disappointing to find out that our elected officials at the Oklahoma State Capital would consider choosing a foreign product over an Oklahoma product; especially for a project as visible as this one,” Tamara Hibbard told FOX 25 in a statement. “Polycor Oklahoma is the marble quarry that should have won this bid. Not only do they provide beautiful, high-quality local stone products - they directly impact the local economy by providing jobs and contributing to our town, our county, and OUR STATE. That can’t be said by any foreign company, no matter how cheap their product is. By selecting foreign materials over local materials for our own State Capitol building, what message is that sending to Oklahomans? Does supporting “Made in Oklahoma” businesses mean something different when it comes to our own State legislature?”
Hibbard has written lawmakers who represent Marble City and the surrounding area. None of those lawmakers answered FOX 25’s questions about what inquiries they’ve made about the project or their thoughts on using foreign-sourced materials for the capitol.
According to records provided by OMES, members of the restoration project actually made trips to three different quarries around the country. Even though those trips were part of the taxpayer funded project, OMES says it has not spent taxpayer funds to travel to quarries.
The agency also says that part of the bid requirement that requests subcontractors to provide pictures “from the quarry” that are needed to “obtain approval for slab selection” does not refer to needing pictures of any stone slabs at a physical quarry. OMES says no one visited any of the quarries in China or other foreign countries to see where the capitol flooring was being produced.
The director of the restoration did send a letter to representatives who questioned the move saying the Chinese stone they've selected is better quality than that produced in Marble City and qualifies for a loophole in the state law that requires Oklahoma building projects to use local materials when possible.
FOX 25 requested a statement from Governor Mary Fallin, who appointed the director of OMES, about the project and the human rights costs involved with using imported stone. Governor Fallin has been an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” slogan which promotes buying American-made products and lessening the reliance on imported products, particularly from China. The governor’s office did not get back with us before publication of this story.