To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Thursday, April 25, 2024

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Feeling The Heat

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Two of state government’s highest profile seats got significantly warmer in the last week.

One is occupied by state Superintendent Ryan Walters, the other by Gov. Kevin Stitt – both apparently in the crosshairs of investigations into the alleged mishandling of millions of dollars in federal Covid relief funds.

Perhaps you had forgotten about GEER – the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund, created to help families purchase remote learning essentials when the pandemic closed schools?

Attorney General Gentner Drummond clearly hasn’t.

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In a sharply worded, Jan. 23 letter to the governor, Drummond rejected Stitt’s efforts to shift blame for the fiasco to Florida-based private vendor Kleo Inc. and its subsidiary ClassWallet for the non-academic expenditures, including gaming systems, Christmas trees, and home appliances.

The AG instead assigned responsibility to Walters, who oversaw the relief fund as the governor’s then-education cabinet secretary, and to what he described as a “litany” of Stitt administration “errors.”

At the very least, Oklahoma faces the prospect of being required to repay the misused federal funds. It’s also possible those responsible for administering the program face legal peril. Thus, the reason Walters’ and Stitt’s seats warmed up when Drummond’s letter became public, thanks to dogged reporting by the Tulsa World.

Drummond is barely a year into his first term, but this much is certain: He doesn’t suffer fools – or those who play fast-and-loose with taxpayers dollars.

Federal and state auditors both called out Oklahoma’s mishandling of GEER funds. A limited look-see by the feds cited as improper more than 10% of $6.1 million in expenditures – money they recommended the state be ordered to repay.

Subsequently, State Auditor Cindy Byrd’s exhaustive audit identified more than $1.83 million in questionable spending. She also turned up $6.5 million in dubious expenditures by a $10 million GEER-funded program aimed at helping low-income families whose students attended private schools.

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The wheels of justice often grind slowly, especially when involving allegations of public corruption. So it has been during Drummond’s brief tenure. But there are signs the wheels are picking up speed.

Earlier this month, the multi-county grand jury indicted three men on six felony counts each for allegedly defrauding the state in the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom restaurants scandal that became public in 2022.

“The indictments issued today,” Drummond said at the time, “contain serious charges and will be prosecuted by my office on behalf of the People of Oklahoma.”

Though the charges were limited to Swadley’s owner and two employees, it’s notable that two state officials with strong ties to the governor came under fire for their supervision of the deal that led to Foggy Bottom restaurants opening in six state parks – Jerry Winchester, Stitt’s appointee as state Tourism and Recreation Department executive director, and his deputy, Gino DeMarco.

Is that investigation complete? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Drummond twice now has flexed his power as attorney general by nixing Stitt-backed lawsuits against Kleo/ClassWallet.

The first was filed by Drummond’s predecessor, Stitt-appointed AG John O’Connor, in 2022. Drummond withdrew the case after becoming attorney general last year. When Stitt recently urged Drummond to revive it again, the AG refused, saying in the Jan. 23 letter that the case was “meritless,” a “futile exercise in poor judgement,” and a “frivolous and an assured drain of taxpayer resources,” according to the World.

Stitt got a private attorney to file the suit anyway; Drummond quickly withdrew it as the state’s chief legal counsel. Both Stitt and Walters have obvious reasons to want to shift the blame at Kleo/ClassWallet.

Walters appears to be especially exposed, given that Drummond possesses emails in which Walters directed ClassWallet to give parents “blanket approval” for all purchases.

“Blanket approval” is reason enough to think this case is far from over.

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Arnold Hamilton, Editor
Arnold Hamilton, Editor
Arnold Hamilton became editor of The Observer in September 2006. Previously, he served nearly two decades as the Dallas Morning News’ Oklahoma Bureau chief. He also covered government and politics for the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Times Herald, the Tulsa Tribune and the Oklahoma Journal.
Mark Krawczyk
Mark Krawczyk
March 9, 2023
Exceptional reporting about goings on in my home state as well as informative opinion pieces that makes people think about issues of the day...........get a SUBSCRIPTION FOLKS!!!!!!!
Brette Pruitt
Brette Pruitt
September 5, 2022
The Observer carries on the "give 'em hell" tradition of its founder, the late Frosty Troy. I read it from cover to cover. A progressive wouldn't be able to live in a red state without it.