Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – A week and a half after release of the multi-county grand jury report, controversy continues to swirl around the Oklahoma Department of Health.
In the absence of indictments it remains unclear what the legacy of the agency scandal – ranging from the existence of a secretive “slush fund” to apparently unnecessary layoffs of experienced employees – will be.
Legislative reactions have often fallen along partisan lines, albeit with Republicans seeming tougher on appointees of the Republican governor, and with Democrats aiming their sharpest barbs at the legislative majority.
A May 18 press release from the House Democratic caucus opined, “The employees of the state Health Department were found completely innocent while the Legislature and the executive branch are refusing to acknowledge their roles in this crisis; a role that has led to continued vilification of the very agencies they are charged to manage.”
The House Democrats explicitly challenged the utility of the House Special Investigation Committee, formed after the Health Department’s finance irregularities became broadly known last fall.
Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, who serves on both the Public Safety and Natural Resources/Regulatory Services panels, was quoted in the release saying, “Often, state agencies and even employees are referred to in a disrespectful manner on the House floor. Legislative budget subcommittees have been all but removed from the entire state budget process and are no longer able to spend the necessary time in each area of government to guarantee that things are running smoothly.”
Rep. David Perryman of Chickasha, a leading spokesman for the minority caucus, insisted, “Much like the recent findings regarding the $130 million Republican mismanagement of road and bridge funds, the Health Department has had to do more with less often for fear of losing funding to pay for unnecessary Republican tax cuts, credits, and exemptions.”
The House Democrats pressed for more funding of the agency, more training for its employees, and this: “[W]e request a full report on the role the Office of Management and Enterprise Services plays within the state financial structure.
To say OMES doesn’t know what is going on when it is responsible for the management of millions of taxpayer dollars and the formulation of the governor’s budget proposal is unacceptable.”
In a rather brief and focused May 18 statement, Senate Democratic Leader John Sparks of Norman, said there was “plenty of blame to go around” but that “chronic under-funding of state agencies over the last decade” was the real culprit.
Sen. Sparks fell solidly in the “not enough spending” camp, but had a good work for the office of Auditor Gary Jones: “State agencies are forced to deliver essential services with slashed budgets and personnel who are overworked and underpaid. At the same time, funding for the State Auditor’s office, which is responsible for uncovering waste, fraud, and abuse at state agencies, has been repeatedly cut.
“Moving forward, the governor and legislature must work together to properly fund core services, hold state agencies accountable, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are responsibly managed.”
A more critical view of the agency, its management, and state executive officers came from state Rep. Tom Gann, R-Inola, who said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations:
“I believe the findings of the grand jury reveal that this type of mismanagement is not an exception but the norm of how our state government is managed.”
Gann continued, “As a member of the House Special Investigative Committee, I was astounded by the magnitude of this type of mismanagement that was able to continue undetected and ignored for so long.
“I believe it is time to pass reform measures that would hold agency heads personally liable for the accuracy and completeness of agency financial reports. This is done in the corporate world, where corporate officers are subject to forfeiture of benefits and civil penalties and are required to certify and attest to the integrity of their financial reports. It should be no different for any agency head that oversees an agency that compares to some corporations in terms of the size of their budgets.”
Referencing comments from Auditor Jones when the grand jury report was released, Rep. Gann said, “The disruption of services by agencies as a means to gain more appropriations from the Legislature should be outlawed. The state Health Department never needed to disrupt services across the state and never needed the additional money to provide those services. The process of how agencies come to the Legislature for more money is a shell game.”
Like his GOP colleague, Kevin Calvey, Gann said the information within the report proved a point that a band of conservatives opposed recent revenue hikes, had made: “This calls into question the recent tax increases. Are they really necessary? I never thought the Legislature was getting a real picture of the financial situations and by testimony by the state auditor and attorney general yesterday no one in state government does either.
“If we are ever going to be the state we can be, we must break the mentality of tax and spend to ‘get something done’ and create a culture of transparency of state resources so when there is a need the Oklahoma taxpayer is assured the money is needed and will be spent properly.”
Calvey explicitly challenged testimony before the House Investigation Committee from Preston Doerflinger, who left government service in February , after a few month’s service as interim commissioner at the agency.
Rep. Calvey said, “Under cross-examination before the House Special Investigative Committee, disgraced former state Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger admitted that he approved the Health Department’s annual budgets by reviewing the same documentation as that provided by other state agencies. That means these sorts of ‘slush funds’ likely exist in perhaps dozens of other state agencies, not just in the Health Department.”