A state official who played a key role in negotiating questionable government contracts for pandemic supplies and a failed restaurant venture at state parks claims his private land deal near Lake Murray was all above board.
But emails show Gino DeMarco, then deputy director of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation, had access to information about a new marina development at Lake Murray State Park that wasn’t yet public and participated in talks about the scope of the project while also planning his own nearby business venture.
In February 2020, DeMarco bought 26 acres of land for $690,000 near Lake Murray State Park from a retired Episcopal priest and his wife. DeMarco subdivided the land into lots with plans for a new development called Acorn Hollow. The sale closed less than a month before state tourism officials signed a deal with a private developer to build Murray Harbor Marina about three miles away. The new marina opened in May 2021 with nearly 450 boat slips and will soon have 20 floating cabins to accommodate tourists. A water park could also eventually be part of the development.
The purchase was first reported by The Oklahoman.
In an interview with The Frontier, DeMarco said he recused himself from negotiations to build the new marina and never saw any bids for the project. But Tourism Department officials said they could find no record of a formal recusal and emails show DeMarco was involved in talks about the project while under contract to buy land at Lake Murray.
DeMarco said he bought the land to “increase that property value by doing development on it,” but quickly sold it because the media “wore me out over the COVID bullshit and (I was) not interested in hanging on for a tiny bit more money,” he said.
To donate to The Frontier and help support our efforts to grow investigative journalism in Oklahoma, click here.
“What standard am I held to? That I can’t possibly buy and sell any property related to anything that has anything to do with the state?” DeMarco said.
Oklahoma ethics rules bar state officials from using their positions to enrich themselves or others. State officers must recuse themselves from matters where they may have a financial interest, said Ashley Kemp, director of the Oklahoma State Ethics Commission.
“State governments act through the individuals who serve as state officers and employees,” Kemp said. “Citizens must be able to trust state officials to keep the interest of the public prioritized above their own personal interests.”
DeMarco’s lawyer said he notified three people in Tourism Department management, including the deputy general counsel, that he recused himself from all activities related to the marina in November 2019 after he submitted an offer to buy land, but he did participate in preparing the state’s initial request for proposal.
In emails with Tourism Department general counsel Brett Thomas, DeMarco discussed contract negotiations with the Murray Harbor developer, but wrote that someone else would have to communicate with the company since he had recused himself.
Tourism Department officials said the agency could find no other documentation of DeMarco’s recusal. A spokesman for the agency did say “records indicate Mr. Demarco was not involved in the bid selection process for the Lake Murray project.”
In an email from December 2019, DeMarco discussed details of the marina project, including the number of boat slips, the terms of the agency’s lease with the developer and the possibility of building floating lake cabins. The specific information discussed was not part of a request for proposals the state issued for the marina development. These details were not publicly available at the time and were only in the winning bid. The email was sent a few weeks after the state chose a winning bidder for the project while DeMarco was under contract to buy his Lake Murray property.
DeMarco’s attorney Joe White said in an email that his client was only passing along relevant information and did not participate in any contract negotiations.
DeMarco couldn’t say whether he would have bought land near the lake if plans for a new marina weren’t underway.
“That’s a hypothetical,” he said.
White said that the Tourism Department first released information to the public in October 2019 about plans to build a new marina on the east side of Lake Murray. And DeMarco said everyone he talked to, including the people he bought the land from, knew Murray Harbor would be built nearby.
But Ardmore Realtor Claudia Kittrell, who represented the seller in DeMarco’s land purchase, said she and the family didn’t know the state was about to invest millions into Lake Murray during the roughly three-month period the sale was being finalized.
“We knew (the property) was close to Lake Murray, and we thought that’d be great for somebody to buy it and develop it, but I was unaware of the new marina going in,” she said.
Kittrell said she didn’t want to speculate whether the land would have sold for more money if the family had all the details about the marina development. A family member of the seller declined an interview request.
Less than a year after buying the land and about three months before the new Murray Harbor Marina opened, DeMarco sold all of the Acorn Hollow lots for an estimated $943,000, according to county assessor records. DeMarco’s attorney verified the sale amount. DeMarco said he spent over $130,000 to develop the land with new water and electrical lines and made a $122,000 profit.
DeMarco has served in prominent roles at various state agencies in recent years. Jerry Winchester, former executive director of the Tourism Department, named DeMarco as deputy director in 2019. He left the agency in the spring of 2020.
DeMarco helped negotiate a deal in 2020 with the company Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen to operate restaurants at state parks that is now under investigation by law enforcement and a special House of Representatives committee. The deal included the development of a Foggy Bottom location at Lake Murray.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Oklahoma in March 2020, Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed DeMarco as “PPE Czar.” In that role, DeMarco oversaw state spending for pandemic supplies. A report by Oklahoma State Auditor Cindy Byrd’s office later found that the state spent $5.4 million for goods that weren’t received.
In September 2021, Stitt appointed DeMarco to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority Board, where he still serves.
Contact: email@example.com // (405)274-5430
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org // email@example.com // (210)268-8694