Discover more from Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning
Is it the corruption or the incompetence Kevin Stitt's presided over that's most troubling?
Swadley's scandal and Stitt's executive branch's inability to administer $18 million in pandemic relief funds make strong case both are very much in play
It’s a funny thing.
Those seeking to make Kevin Stitt a one-term governor must be flummoxed on the matter of selecting a campaign strategy.
Beyond selling themselves, do they zig, claiming he cannot be allowed to serve a second term on account of the corruption, or do they zag, claiming he cannot be allowed to serve a second term on account of the incompetence.
Or, maybe, like GEICO, can they do it all, coherently exposing Stitt on several flanks, because several are available: corruption, incompetence and, why not, embarrassment and breathtaking arrogance, too.
If you happened to watch his last State of the State address, you had to wonder when it would all come crashing down for the man who just couldn’t help but be first in the chamber to put his hands together for his very own applause lines.
For weeks now it’s been the unfolding drama of the abhorrently sweetheart deal the state’s tourism department entered into with Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen, allowing it to not only receive a sole bid contract to operate six restaurants in Oklahoma’s state parks, but signing on to cover all of Swadley’s management and construction costs, and covering all losses, too; a state of affairs that had the tourism department shelling out $16.7 million to Swadley’s until the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency presented an end-of-March report that essentially asked, what the hell?
Since, the tourism department has shelved the deal; the OSBI has opened a criminal investigation upon the request of Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater (though Attorney General John O’Connor couldn’t be bothered to look into it himself); a special House committee has been created to investigate; tourism department director Jerry Winchester has resigned and, perhaps because the state may not sue itself, it has filed suit against Swadley’s, though a reading of it, oddly, does not begin to spell out what the state is hoping to recover, like it was put together over lunch in a case of damage-control-by-lawsuit.
So there’s that.
Then, Monday, The Frontier, the non-profit online investigative journalism outfit that’s been killing it, driving coverage of the Swadley’s scandal, spanked Stitt’s executive branch again.
Read all about it here, because the details go on forever, but the crux of it is, in its effort to put $18 million in federal funds in the hands of Oklahoma families for the express purpose of defraying education costs during the coronavirus pandemic, the state failed miserably.
Here’s a tiny piece of The Frontier’s reporting:
Other states used federal money to train new teachers or support programs for deaf and blind students. But in Oklahoma, a history teacher with political ambitions helped a Florida tech company win a no-bid state contract to rapidly distribute $8 million to families with little government oversight. Another $10 million went to private school vouchers.
With few guardrails, some families used Oklahoma’s share of federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds to buy Christmas trees, gaming consoles, electric fireplaces and outdoor grills, an investigation by Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier has found.
Months later the teacher, Ryan Walters, was on a national stage as Stitt’s new Secretary of Education, calling the effort a success.
Not only that, but the whole thing being so mismanaged, $2.9 million had to be returned to the feds, who were trying to give it away to Oklahomans in the first place.
Oh, yeah, tucked away in the Frontier’s story, which arrived only Monday, are these telling two paragraphs:
Following weeks of inquiries by The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch about the ClassWallet contract, Stitt’s office released a demand letter sent late Friday afternoon stating that it intends to pursue damages the state “has incurred or will incur as a result of ClassWallet’s failure to comply with it’s contractual and related legal obligations.”
“Regrettably, ClassWallet failed to fulfill its contractual and legal obligations to the state and some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Atchison, Stitt’s spokeswoman, said. “Governor Stitt is committed to recouping any misused funds and if ClassWallet refuses to take appropriate action, we will have no option but to file suit in court.”
So, Stitt and others stonewalled, hoping to keep an embarrassing story from ever seeing the light of day? Yet, the day the story hit the world anyway, the governor’s response was to blame the same folks his administration was so happy to do business with in the first place, and threaten to sue?
As damning as the reporting has been in full, little stand-alone nuggets within it explain much, too.
On April 18, one day before O’Connor said he didn’t want to be a “hotheaded prosecutor” and get the attorney general’s office looking into Swadley’s, Stitt had something to say, too.
“It’s kind of peculiar that all this stuff happens on an election year,” he said.
Yet, just 11 days later, flanked by Lt. Gov. and Secretary of Tourism Matt Pinnell, Stitt announced Winchester’s resignation and said this:
“It’s important that we get to the bottom of this situation. (Pinnell) will make sure the agency is properly managed and is taking all the necessary steps to address immediate issues with vendors and staff.”
So it’s all politics one day but a real issue another day?
But still one Stitt’s trying to keep at arm’s length, putting it in Pinnell’s lap?
Watch your back Matt Pinnell.
Another funny thing.
In the release announcing Winchester’s appointment to the tourism department’s directorship way back in 2019, Pinnell offered this hilarious-in-retrospect quote:
“Tourism is a cornerstone of the Oklahoma economy, and we feel that Jerry’s executive management experience and vision will bring a new dimension to the Department’s work,” he said.
Sure, because nobody knows how to sell a state to visitors better than an old energy business executive, whose products are literally the same products every other energy firm on earth is selling.
Stitt has also claimed not to know Brent Swadley — “Let me be clear, I do not have any sort of relationship with Brent Swadley,” he said Friday. “I don’t know Brent Swadley.” — who now sounds a bit like a spurned lover.
“What Kevin Stitt said, I mean, I was in tears,” he told KOKH, Oklahoma City’s FOX affiliate. “I couldn’t believe he was going to act like he doesn’t know me.”
But Swadley may have a point.
KOKH’s Wendy Suares, Tuesday, tweeted out a picture of Stitt and Swadley together, as well as a handwritten note from Stitt to Swadley, thanking the restauranteur for the fine meal he consumed at Roman Nose State Park.
If I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a million times. Kevin Stitt governs like nobody’s watching.
Only they are watching, thank goodness.
So, the corruption or the incompetence?
Or, the corruption and the incompetence (and the embarrassment and the breathtaking arrogance, too)?
Might as well go for the whole truth.
Just make sure you tell it well.
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