Tourism leaders questioned by House investigative committee

Tourism Director Dick Dutton and Deputy Director Claudia Conner testify before the House Special Investigative Committee (Phil Cross/KOKH).

Lawmakers want answers about how the Department of Tourism handled tax dollars and how so many problems with financial management went unnoticed for so long. The hearing before the House Special Investigative Committee came following a lengthy FOX 25 investigation that began last year.

RELATED: FOX 25 Investigates: Is everything OK at agency promoting OK?

Committee members heard agency Director Dick Dutton admit the agency had made settlement payments to employees via the agency’s clearing account. State law does not allow for an agency clearing account to be used in that manner.

During testimony Monday, Tourism leaders said initially an internal report blamed pressure from Dutton on the Chief Financial Officer to write the checks in order to make the settlement. Dutton says that conversation never happened.

“All I requested was the checks themselves,” Dutton told the panel. He said he wanted physical checks as he went into settlement negotiations with the employees who had been improperly paid. Dutton said he never knew what account the checks were written on.

Dutton also admitted that the federal Department of Labor investigation FOX 25 reported was going on at Roman Nose State Park did happen. In November, FOX 25 reported the investigation was centered on the fact time clocks were taking 30 minutes out of employee hours for lunch breaks regardless of whether a break was taken or not.

During testimony Dutton said the Labor investigators found the agency had underpaid six employees and ordered repayment. However, Dutton said the Department of Labor found the violations did not rise to the level requiring a fine or other punishment to the Department of Tourism.

Lawmakers questioned the agency’s use of outside attorneys for other labor disputes. The agency said it sometimes settles cases to prevent costly legal cases. Deputy Director and General Counsel Claudia Conner blamed the “vigorous” defense of an “employee union” for the legal expenses. However, there is no employee union, she was likely referring to the Oklahoma Public Employees Association which is currently involved in a lawsuit against the department after the agency tried to transfer some employees more than 100 miles from their home.

Connor also defended the termination of a long-time park ranger, though a court ruled that firing was improper.

RELATED: FOX 25 Investigates: What wrongful terminations are costing taxpayers

Lawmakers referenced FOX 25’s reports on multiple occasions, though Dutton denied ever watching any of them. Internal emails obtained by FOX 25 show Dutton criticizing the reporting.

“There was a series of reports done by FOX 25 television station, Phil Cross was the lead reporter on that, that I've got to say in viewing that is pretty hard hitting and probative,” State Representative Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City, said to tourism leaders.

RELATED: Former Attorney General addresses Open Meeting concerns at Tourism Commission

Calvey’s questioning, as has become his fashion during these investigative hearings, was pointed. Calvey focused part of his questioning on an email discovered in the material provided by tourism to the committee.

“in an email to both of you [Dutton and Connor], Calvey read from the document which included a reference to the agency using a “interesting strategy” in dealing with a potential park closure plan by exploring the impact of the shutdown of state parks in the home districts of both the House Speaker and the Senate President Pro Temp.

Dutton denied the email referred to any strategy to target parks in the districts of legislative leaders. Instead he said the email discussing the “interesting strategy” was what they would do for any lawmaker.

“One of the things we try to do,” Dutton explained, “Is if there is an impact or an issue to any legislature with a park in their district is we try to make sure we involve them in what was going on.”

“It's basically very obvious the agency, your tax payer funded authorities were targeting the two leaders of the legislative bodies in the House and Senate to put political pressure on them,” Calvey told FOX 25 following the hearing.

Representative Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, had similar questions about spending in the wake of the hypothetical park closure plan submitted to the legislature. Asking how park closures could ever happen while the agency was attempting to build a new headquarters.

Under questioning by Cleveland, Dutton said the agency has spent approximately $80,000 on architectural plans for the yet-to-be-built building.

“I do have the funding source,” Dutton explain to both Cleveland and later to Calvey who asked about the same concern over spending on the new headquarters. “I have been granted, the agency has been given a bonding to be able to do that.” Dutton explained the bonding, which would be the agency borrowing money on credit, is separate from its operating funds.

“Certainly things like that, a new headquarters building for a state agency would seem like it wouldn't be high on the priority list,” Calvey said after the hearing, “And yet they spent $80,000 dreaming about that.”

At the last Tourism Commission meeting of 2017, Commissioners gave approval for the agency leaders to continue the land acquisition process for the proposed new building.

“That's troubling,” Calvey said, “It should be to the taxpayers now is not the time to be puffing up the headquarters of a state agency.”

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