To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Observercast

The Grift That Keeps On Grifting

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Despite Oklahoma’s sordid history of public corruption, it’s still shocking anytime the state auditor call outs a gubernatorial administration and a major state agency director for possibly mishandling millions of tax dollars.

It’s even more stunning when the attorney general then demands the agency chief’s resignation, contending her “self-dealing represents an unforgivable breach of trust” that “disqualifies her from overseeing the expenditure of our tax dollars.”

Yet, as May dawns, that is where we are: Auditor Cindy Byrd sounding the alarm that Gov. Kevin Stitt’s team is fast turning Oklahoma into a shady “no-bid state.” And Attorney General Gentner Drummond assailing state Tourism Director Shelley Zumwalt for her previous leadership of a different state agency which funneled millions of tax dollars to a company in which her husband is an executive.

Let us pause for a moment to be crystal clear about what we’re seeing: This is a Republican auditor and a Republican attorney general calling foul against a Republican governor and his team, which until the audit was made public included cabinet secretary Zumwalt.

These matters bear no resemblance to a former Republican president’s whining that nasty Democrats in DC, New York and Georgia are weaponizing the justice system against him.

Indeed, the fact top elected state Republicans are the ones demanding accountability from a GOP administration should make clear to even the reddest loyalists that this is serious, not some run-of-the-mill intra-party skirmish.

Naturally, Stitt insists it’s a “frustrating” political attack by those seeking higher office. But that’s the thinnest of reeds.

Yes, Drummond clearly has political ambition – his interest in the 2026 governor’s race is undoubtedly one reason for his shameful pandering to his party’s wingnuts via his full-throated endorsement of the bigoted anti-immigrant bill, HB 4156.

But the AG’s also extremely cautious, hardly a shoot-from-the-lip type. Proof? Stitt’s six years have produced lots of smoke – Gino DeMarco, anyone? Yet, the state’s multi-county grand jury, which Drummond’s office administers, has been largely silent on possible public corruption matters, suggesting Drummond wants all i’s dotted and t’s crossed before prosecuting high-profile cases.

Byrd, by contrast, betrays little interest in climbing the political ladder. She’s a straight-shooting numbers cruncher – period. The state’s fiscal umpire. Calling balls and strikes without fear or favor or favoring the party under whose banner she was elected. She was part of former GOP Auditor Gary Jones’ excellent team before being elected to succeed him.

Jones, of course, was Republican to his ingrown toenails – previously serving the party as state chair. But when it came to serving The People as state auditor, Red and Blue were of no consequence – only the black and white appearing on state ledgers. Sadly, his fidelity to truth and the rule of law turned some GOPers against him.

What becomes of the alarming information in Byrd’s latest analysis of state management of federal pandemic relief funds – and Drummond’s conclusion that Zumwalt betrayed the public’s trust – remains to be seen.

We know Zumwalt has denied wrongdoing, noting the $8.5 million contract with the company where her husband is VP was approved before she became the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission’s executive director. She also insists she followed the agency’s legal advice when subsequently administering the payouts.

[Byrd, though, points out, “Federal law requires that any entity receiving federal grant money must disclose any conflict of interest in writing. Any person who could possibly benefit from a federal grant cannot be part of the selection, award, administration, or contracting of that money.”]

And we know Drummond has authorized an investigative audit enabling Byrd to probe deeper into possible fiscal and contracting shenanigans at the Office of Management and Enterprise Services – another of the three agencies Stitt previously appointed Zumwalt to lead.

This much is certain: Taxpayers should rest easier knowing Byrd and Drummond are on the case.

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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.