Former Attorney General addresses Open Meeting concerns at Tourism Commission

The entry way for Oklahoma's departments of Commerce and Tourism. (KOKH).JPG

Phone call meetings that happen before public meetings at the Department of Tourism are raising concerns among advocates of government transparency. FOX 25 detailed the phone-call meetings during our four-part investigation into the Department of Tourism.

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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 with half the commissioners and the other call in the afternoon with the other four - each call and meeting avoids having more than 50-percent of the commission 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.

“They may be playing it a little close to the line with each phone call dealing with less than a majority of the board, but again the intent is to have public business conducted in public,” said former Oklahoma Attorney General and current Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson. “It seems to me, as described, that the methodology used by that department is circumventing the [Open Meetings] Act.”

Edmondson served at the state’s Attorney General for 16 years. He authored many of the opinions dealing with the interpretation of the Open Meeting and Open Records laws.

“Public records belong to the public, public meetings belong to the public and a fully informed citizenry is important to a fully functioning democracy,” Edmondson told FOX 25.

The Chair of the Tourism Commission, Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb, said he too gets private briefings before each meeting. He told FOX 25 he does not support anything that would violate the Open Meetings Act.

However, FOX 25’s investigation has turned up concerns about the past behavior of the commission in regards to the Open Meetings Act.

Tourism leaders gave the former internal auditor the choice to be fired or resign just before he was set to reveal all the financial details of the agency to the Tourism Commission. The agency director would admit to those issues months later when a new internal auditor confirmed many of the same findings.

RELATED: FOX 25 Investigates: Federal investigations into Department of Tourism

However, the charter for the Internal Auditor position at the Department of Tourism says that the auditor may only be hired or fired by the commission. There is no provision for the commission to give away that duty.

“Sir your facts are wrong,” Tourism Director Dick Dutton told FOX 25 in October when asked about the firing of the auditor, “I had commission approval to make any personnel changes with the internal auditor that I needed to do.”

There is no record the Tourism Commission voted on the auditor’s termination or voted to give up their power to terminate the auditor in any meeting. State law says that "any vote or action on any item of business considered in an executive session shall be taken in public meeting with the vote of each member publicly cast and recorded."

Edmondson say the FOX 25 investigation raises a lot of questions

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“I think we have a moral obligation to make sure the public gets efficient government and honest government in return for those tax dollars,” Edmondson said, “And it doesn't sound like they are getting that right now out of the Tourism Department.”

Tourism leaders have said they plan to hire an external auditor to help sort through many of the issues that have been uncovered. That investigation would be in addition to what their new internal auditor is doing and on top of the federal investigation and promised House of Representatives investigation into the agency.

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