Audit reveals questionable spending, potential illegal activity surround small town's aquarium project

The Town of Medicine Park violated the state's open meeting laws and engaged in questionable and potentially illegal spending practices according to a state audit released Wednesday. The audit is the result of more than a year's worth of investigation after people in the small southwest Oklahoma community requested the state step in to take a closer look at the town's spending.

The audit request began with concerns over the management and development of the Medicine Park Aquarium and Natural Sciences Center. The project was proposed in 2009, but did not break ground until 2011.

Critics of the museum project said planners with the project and the city misspent taxpayer money and wasted resources donated to the museum project. The 48 page audit revealed the city spent more than $7,000 purchasing animals prior to the aquarium being built. One of those purchases was an issue Fox 25 reported on in 2013 when the town spent $2,000 for a cougar cub, which was kept in the garage of one of the volunteers. Auditors say the zoo the town says they purchased the cub from has no records of the sale and there is no canceled check to back up the reimbursement.

"After being called lots of names and being called a liar, and being accused of doing things for personal gain you know, there's vindication here," said Larry Meese a one-time volunteer turned critic of the project.

"There were no discrepancies found; no missing money found," said Medicine Park Mayor Dwight Cope, "The grants, donations, loans, have all been handled properly."

Cope is downplaying the audit, calling many of the findings 'minor bookkeeping' issues. He says most have been corrected and the alleged violations of the open meetings act were as simple as discrepancies in wordings between town policies and agendas.

In addition auditors showed that the town collected more than $35,000 dollars prior to filing as an Oklahoma Charitable Organization in 2012. The audit says the town's mayor, Dwight Cope, signed a document in which "he attested, under penalty of perjury," the group had not collected any money prior to organizing as a charity.

The museum also failed to register as a nonprofit with the IRS prior to collecting donations.

"Nothing they found was illegal," Cope told Fox 25, "We had to reword some things because that was the terminology they wanted."

Supporters of the audit read the report's findings differently.

"I'm reading that they've done a lot of things wrong and they're not minor," Meese told Fox 25, "They have breached the trust of every resident in Medicine Park."

State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones said the town was not following proper procedures for the oversight of public funds.

"They basically had the tail wagging the dog," Jones told Fox 25, "They thought that the nonprofit organization would be the one to be in charge of entering into the contracts making all the decisions; basically handing the bills over to the government entity to pay; we explained to them they can't do that you've got to have proper government oversight."

Jones said the town likely got bad advice as it sought to build the museum and create a nonprofit. He says the audit should serve as a warning to other towns to not assume they know what they're doing and instead ask the experts in his office for advice before jumping into complicated projects.

Jones said while his office is only a reporting agency, his report will be forwarded to the district attorney's office in Comanche County due to the state laws that appear to have been violated.

"I am sure a large majority of citizens in Medicine Park will read this audit and hopefully it will result in some positive change," Jones said.

People in Medicine Park should read the audit, because they are paying for it. The audit cost the town $18,000, and earlier this year the town chose to add a surcharge of $5.50 to each utility bill to pay for the cost.

Jones says it is the first time he's ever seen a town pay for an investigative audit that way.

"It was done to turn them against us my home, my personal home, was vandalized just a few weeks back," Meese said. He believes the surcharge was an attempt to further ostracize those who supported the audit.

Meese says the treatment he's received was enough to send him and his family out of the state until he can be sure of his safety, but he's still a taxpaying citizen of Medicine Park and hopes the city changes its ways to become more transparent and better stewards of tax dollars.

"Unbeknownst to probably most people in Medicine Park, the town of Medicine Park just took $21,000 of the money they reportedly don't have to pay for the audit, but they do have to give to the museum."

Mayor Cope says the town had to pay for the audit somehow and the utility surcharge was the best way to evenly distribute the costs. He says it was not intended to punish critics or rally public opinion against them. Yet the mayor still calls the criticism of the town a "personal vendetta" by a few people with "axes to grind" against town leaders.

"We did get some bad advice from people we trusted all along this route and we've learned a lot," Cope said, "I've told you we're good people trying to do a good thing and we're going to keep on doing it and we're going to get it done."

Cope says the now that the audit is finished it will free up other grant money to complete the aquarium. He says the town hopes to have the aquarium open by Labor Day this year, but the opening might be pushed back to later this fall.

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