PROMO Outdoors - Camping Tent Trees Forest Recreation - iStock - Matthew H Irvin

Oklahoma lawmaker says new bill would have prevented parks and recreation debacle

© iStock - Matthew H Irvin
Kim Jarrett

(The Center Square) - Oklahoma Senator Roger Thompson kept his promise to introduce legislation that increases oversight of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.

Thompson, R-Okemah, filed a bill that would restore the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commission and give it the authority to hire and fire the executive director and establish their salary. That authority currently rests with the governor. 

The bill requires legislative approval of the governor's appointees to the eight-member commission. This is how the commission operated prior to 2019 with one change – commission members cannot be removed without cause.

Thompson said in June he would introduce the legislation in light of a report from the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency that showed overspending by Swadley's Bar-B-Q, which was contracted in 2020 to operate restaurants at state parks. 

"Nearly $6 million in expenses were related to construction costs, management fees, and reimbursements," according to the report. "OTRD also covered more than $2 million in operational losses for the contracted restaurant vendor. Recent expenditures on several restaurants located within state parks exceed Parks' estimate of the restaurant's replacement value multiple times."

Some of the other red flags found in the report include an $11,000 purchase of a cheese melter and September 2020 travel expenses for 164,903 miles. 

Those issues would have been found sooner with better oversight, Thompson said.

"I cannot imagine that contract, as rich as it was and lucrative to go before a commission and they say, 'Yes, that's a good deal,'" Thompson said. 

The report has spawned several lawsuits and investigations. The state is suing Swadley's for breach of contract. And the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a criminal investigation into the contract.