Amid the fallout from the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen scandal, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell would take a more hands-on role in state tourism operations.
But Pinnell has already played an active role. As Secretary of Tourism, he personally approved $16.7 million in payments for Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen restaurants from the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.
Following an executive order Stitt signed in 2019, cabinet secretaries must approve all agency expenses over $25,000. Pinnell was required to review each purchase and had the power to reject any expense, according to the order.
Mariah Carter, a spokesperson for Pinnell, did not answer The Frontier’s question on whether Pinnell vetted purchases before signing off on expenses.
To donate to The Frontier and help support our efforts to grow investigative journalism in Oklahoma, click here.
“There are levels of accountability and approval that must occur before these requisitions hit the Lt. Governor’s desk,” Carter said. “At the time, the Lt. Governor had full faith in the agency director and his decision making.”
Tourism Executive Director of Tourism Jerry Winchester resigned in April after revelations of questionable spending on the Swadley’s deal.
Documents reflect the trust Pinnell had in Winchester. At one point Pinnell approved a $1.5-million payment to Foggy Bottom via email without seeing the invoice, an email obtained by The Frontier shows. He also signed off on a $2.1 million payment to reimburse Swadley’s for its “fiscal year 2021 deficit coverage” in August.
At a hearing at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Thursday, lawmakers heard testimony detailing how the Tourism Department lost $12.4 million to improper payments for Foggy Bottom restaurants because of a lack of oversight.
In an interview, Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, chairman of a special House committee investigating the deal, said he was troubled by the apparent “rubber stamp” approval on Swadley’s expenses.
“Based off of what I’ve seen from the Swadley deal, it doesn’t look like there’s much of a verification process,” he said.
Carly Atchison, a spokesperson for Stitt, said the governor issued the 2019 executive order to provide “added oversight when agencies spend money so that the governor knows what expenses are going out.”
But, Stitt wasn’t aware that Swadley’s was overbilling the Tourism Department until a meeting with Jerry Winchester on April 18, she said.
Carter said Pinnell is “leading the charge” to urge the Legislature to amend state law to require the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commission to approve all budgets and contracts. Legislation in 2018 stripped the board of its powers.
“As a statewide elected official, Lt. Governor Pinnell works tirelessly to make Oklahoma better,” Carter said. “He feels accountable to taxpayers and certainly sees it as his responsibility to not only get to the bottom of this issue, but also make sure the proper systems are in place to prevent something like this from happening again.”
Reese Gorman is a political investigations reporter based in Oklahoma City. His dog Khaleesi is his best friend and he averages around six cups of coffee a day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org // email@example.com // (210)268-8694