FOX 25 Investigates: Who's responsible for oversight of Tourism Department?
OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) —
State audits, internal investigations, and federal investigations all show concerns about how your money is being spent at the Department of Tourism and Recreation.
The concerns range from courts rulings showing the agency improperly terminated employees to the fact tourism employees had modified legal firearms in a way that violated the National Firearms Act.
The agency is run by an executive director, but just like many state agencies there is a commission that is in place to provide oversight. The commission, just like nearly every commission in Oklahoma, is made up of politically appointed citizens who have are tasked with hiring or firing directors and approving major decisions.
There is one person on the Tourism Commission that is appointed by the people of Oklahoma.
Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb serves as the chairman and voting member of the nine-member panel which is legally tasked with oversight of the agency. State law appoints the state’s second in command to serve in this role.
During an October Commission meeting, the panel listened for nearly half an hour to the agency director admit issues that ranged from the fact the agency had spent money out of its clearing account in a way not in line with state law, to policy violations when the agency allowed for pre-signed blank checks and the admission also stated lax internal controls led to the theft of thousands of dollars from one state park.
Not one commissioner asked questions of the tourism leaders about how so many violations happened or questioned the statement of Executive Director Dick Dutton when he said it was a "huge education issue" that prevented tourism officials from adhering to state laws and internal policies regarding the use of taxpayer dollars.
“I knew some things were coming,” Lamb told FOX 25 about why he wasn’t surprised about the admissions. “I had some concerns already and once the audit was shared with the rest of the commission; I didn't know everything in the audit until it was shared so I wasn't extremely surprised by issue.”
The Lieutenant Governor said he gets private pre-meeting briefings from Tourism leaders prior to each public commission meeting.
According to two former Tourism employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, it is regular practice for Tourism leaders to hold conference calls with commissioners prior to each meeting. One call in the morning is held with half the commissioners and the other call is in the afternoon with the other four commissioners. Each call and meeting avoids having more than 50-percent of the commission present, to avoid having a quorum present.
Former Tourism staff members say during these calls commissioners are able to ask questions and discuss what will be presented before the public is invited into the public meeting.
In a 1981 opinion, the Court of Civil Appeals ruled that Open Meeting legislation should apply to the entire decision making process of a public body.
That ruling followed a similar legal warning from the Oklahoma Attorney General's office in 1980 which said public bodies must act within "both the spirit and purpose of the open meeting act."
“To be clear,” Lamb said, “I would never support anything that would be in violation of statute or any sort of violation of the Open Meeting Act.”
Lamb says he is unaware of any other pre-meeting meetings that happen with other commissioners before public commission meetings. He said he is committed to holding agency officials accountable.
“Moving forward since this audit has been shared and as Lieutenant Governor and as chairing the commission, I’m going to make sure that we properly conduct the oversight that is needed to make sure tax payer money is safeguarded and we're good stewards of the people's money,” Lamb said.
But that is moving forward; what about the past?
FOX 25 asked Lamb if the commission had provided appropriate oversight of the agency over the past seven years that he has been in office.
“Is the Tourism Commission, as a whole, a rubber stamp for the Department of Tourism,” Phil Cross asked Lamb in his office at the Capitol.
“Well not just Tourism alone but I think that is a question, the rubber stamp question in your thesis, is important for all the commissions in Oklahoma. So not just tourism alone, but all the commissions,” Lamb replied.
Because Lamb’s response did not answer the question we asked, we asked the same question two more times.
“I can answer for me,” Lamb said, “For me it has not been a rubber stamp. In the items before the commission and before I cast a vote, if I have a question I ask a question. If I am in disagreement I voice my disagreement.”
Lamb says the tourism commission is limited in what authority they have, but said he believes commissioners should give the agency time to implement changes before taking any additional steps.