Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor won’t release an investigative audit into state Health Department spending that his predecessor requested in 2020.
The audit isn’t a public record and will remain confidential because it is part of the agency’s litigation and investigatory files, a spokeswoman for O’Connor said in an email.
In April 2020, then-Attorney General Mike Hunter asked the state auditor to investigate spending at the state Health Department, including the use of federal relief funds. Hunter’s request came following reports of drastic measures the agency had taken to secure protective equipment during the pandemic, including an attempt to spend $9.5 million to buy N95 masks from a company under investigation by the FBI.
Hunter resigned on May 26, 2021. Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed O’Connor about two months later.
Oklahoma State Auditor Cindy Byrd’s office shared the completed investigative report on Health Department spending with the attorney general’s office last year, five days before Hunter’s resignation, she said in a statement to The Frontier. She met with O’Connor on Aug. 4 and told him the audit was ready to be released unless he wanted to expand the scope of the investigation or look into any other issues, Byrd said.
“He asked if he could have more time to review it and would let me know soon. I have not heard back from him,” Byrd said.
The attorney general’s office did not respond to questions from The Frontier about whether an investigation into Health Department spending is pending.
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Oklahoma in March 2020, state officials scrambled to secure life-saving supplies, such as face masks.
State officials authorized payments for millions of dollars on protective equipment in the early days of the pandemic, but initially declined to release information on suppliers.
Last March, Oklahoma’s state auditor released a routine statewide audit that found the Health Department paid out more than $20.4 million for protective equipment it had no record of receiving.
After the state audit, the Health Department said it would complete an internal examination of its procurement processes. The agency said this week that it has since either received the products it ordered or was working to get refunds.
“We continue to work with the Attorney General’s Office to secure the final refund which is scheduled for payment soon,” the agency said.
Past investigative audits
Hunter had released similar investigative audits in the past but said the reports only become public at the discretion of the attorney general or as part of court records if criminal charges are filed.
In 2018, Hunter released a critical investigative audit into State Health Department financial operations following a months-long multicounty grand jury investigation.
Though the investigative audit and grand jury report found widespread financial mismanagement, both concluded no state or federal money was embezzled or stolen. The errors didn’t result in criminal indictments.
In 2011, then-Attorney General Scott Pruitt asked for an investigative audit into a trust established to buy contaminated properties and relocate residents near the Tar Creek Superfund Site, a former lead and zinc mine.
Pruitt and Hunter fought to keep the audit, which was completed in 2014, secret.
In late 2017, Washington D.C.-based Campaign For Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group, sued Hunter, saying the audit was a public record under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
Hunter eventually released the audit in April 2018, but said he only decided to do so “under his discretion.”