Chocolate Fountains Or Something Larger?

Satirical Image of Walter Conkrite

Given the media coverage, it’s difficult to get a handle on the allegations that the state Education Department for some ten years had inappropriate “slush funds,” which were apparently used to fund conferences.

What’s more, media outlets here are probably missing the larger story, which is the overall relationship between private vendors and state agencies, and how much influence the vendors have on state government.

But more on that later. Let’s look at the so-called allegations.

State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, a former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, has pointed out the Education Department under former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, who held office as a Democrat, spent $2.3 million out of two supposedly undisclosed accounts over a ten-year period.

Jones said the money went to “extravagant” items, such as, according to a Tulsa World story “chocolate fountain, crab cakes, mini-beef Wellingtons and smoked salmon mousse in a puff pastry.” The money also went to apparently purchase liquor, according to Jones. The menu items went viral, along with the term “slush funds,” among Oklahoma’s media folks, with the implication that taxpayers were footing the bill.

Garrett, on the other hand, argues the money was actually given to a nonprofit commission by private companies to help fund educational conferences, and that the money actually saved taxpayers money. She said the accounts were appropriate, audited and approved by former Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s office. No taxpayer money was used to purchase liquor, she said.

Here are some first thoughts on the issue:

The menu items and the pejorative term “slush funds” don’t, in themselves, make this a sensational story. For example, Google “chocolate fountains,” which really don’t cost that much. The fare seems fairly typical for a conference. I’m positive the food is more lavish and the booze flows more at major work-related conferences for media people. (I know. I’ve attended a few conferences for media people through the years.) The use of the term “slush funds” might have been premature and sensationalized given Garrett’s explanation.

I’m not trying to defend how the money was generated or spent. However, if Edmondson or members of his former staff step up and defend how the accounts were managed, then there’s probably not much of a story here. Jones could be overreaching, and it might be simply partisan politics. If Edmondson doesn’t back Garrett’s story or if her story doesn’t hold up in other ways, then it might be different. In this regard, the media here has failed its readership and viewership once again by not asking simple, basic questions and giving the story some context.

The larger issue here, though, is the relationship between private vendors, which might or might not have an interest in promoting their products, and ALL state agencies, including small and large educational institutions. It’s the Republicans who have mainly pushed for privatization in all aspects of government. How can you privatize government and not always encounter the problem of undue influence of money, rather than the quality of a certain product or service, in making decisions that affect taxpayers?

How much influence does a steak dinner and a few drinks or a trip or a lunch or a cash donation for a conference paid for by a vendor have on someone in state government making a final decision about purchasing a product or service from a private company? Of course, this applies to politicians as well.

That’s the important issue, not mini-beef Wellingtons.

The point is this: If Jones and the media are sincere in their moral outrage, then they should extensively audit and report on this wider issue among all state institutions.