‘Slush Funds’ Used Under Barresi?

Image of Janet Barresi

The sensationalized “slush funds” and “chocolate fountain” media story about conferences held by the state Education Department under former schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett has begun to unravel, but the larger, more compelling questions remain unanswered.

As I wrote here previously, state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, a former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, recently issued a report that criticized the Education Department under Garrett for spending $2.3 million over a 10-year period from what he described as two undisclosed funds.

The money went for such “extravagant” items as a chocolate fountain and mini beef Wellingtons, according to Jones, who also said the money was used to purchase alcohol. The local media sensationalized the details of the story and referred to the money as “slush funds.”

Garrett, who served as a Democrat, said the funds were given by private companies to a nonprofit commission, which then used the money to host educational conferences through the years. This actually saved taxpayer money. The funding mechanism was approved by the office of former Attorney Drew Edmondson, she said, and the money was audited.

Was Jones’ attack mere partisan politics then? It appears so.

NewsOK.com ran a story today that showed the Education Department under current state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, pictured right, a Republican, hosted an education conference in 2011 “using private donations and payments held in the bank account of a nonprofit foundation.” The story noted that Jones knew about the conference and funds, but didn’t investigate it. Why aren’t these “slush funds” as well? Does the fact that Barresi is a Republican have anything to do with it? Is Jones simply hungry for publicity?

Barresi’s spokesperson was quick to point out that there were no “lavish expenses” for the event, according to the story, though receipts show that more than $4,000 was spent for rooms at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel and more than $12,000 was spent for catering from Deep Fork. The Skirvin is a fairly expensive hotel by Oklahoma City standards. What type of food did Deep Fork provide? (The Deep Fork Grill Catering menu offers the same type of "extravagant" food purchased in earlier years.) Why didn’t Jones look into this specifically and make it part of his initial report.

After he issued his report, Jones said six other state agencies approached him about their relationships with nonprofit foundations, according to the story. He also said the issue is simply that nonprofit foundations can’t be under the direct control of a state agency. But this rule seems more like a technicality than a violation that would warrant the use of the term “slush funds.” This isn’t taxpayer money, except in some technical sense. If a new rule needs to be established for auditing purposes, then establish it and discard the political theatrics.

I’m surprised only six state agencies have approached Jones after he issued his report. Maybe leaders at some state agencies are hoping the story will go away.

Here’s my take on the Okie political spectacle right now:

As I wrote previously, this is another example of how awful the corporate media can be here in Oklahoma. A few more questions and a little more digging, and we would have known it was a technicality and an interpretation of rules rather than secret slush funds. NewsOK.com’s Megan Rolland should be commended for her current story, which gives the issue context, but there remain unanswered questions.

Here are some of those questions: Just how many state agencies either have a relationship with a nonprofit board or directly accept private donations? What do those private companies and individuals get in return for their donations? How many state contracts are directed to companies that donate money to nonprofit boards associated with particular state agencies? What is the total amount of that money? Are taxpayers getting the best deal from these companies? Are there any personal kickbacks? Are companies that do business with a certain state agency expected to donate to its nonprofit affiliation?

If reporters and Jones would get the answers to those questions, we might have a real story.