© 2024 Public Radio Tulsa
800 South Tucker Drive
Tulsa, OK 74104
(918) 631-2577

A listener-supported service of The University of Tulsa
classical 88.7 | public radio 89.5
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Stitt calls scathing state audit a political attack, voices support for tourism director

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday called a recent state audit and demands for a member of his administration to resign a “frustrating” political attack from state leaders preparing to run for higher office.

“I think what Oklahomans need to understand is you’ve got an AG who’s already said he’s running for governor (and) you’ve got an auditor who’s running for lieutenant governor,” Stitt said during his weekly media briefing. “Within an hour, they coordinated press statements on this 200-page report. So what I’m trying to say is when you politicize, you try to attack other political opponents, it’s just very frustrating for for Oklahomans”

State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd released a scathing report on Tuesday that questioned how Oklahoma spent tens of millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds and scrutinized a practice by state officials to give contracts without competitive bidding.

The audit reviewed how the state spent COVID-19 relief funds in the 2022 fiscal year. Byrd’s office conducted a similar audit for fiscal year 2021 and uncovered similar issues “but the numbers in question are now larger.”

“Two agencies have previously reported these deficiencies so these findings are no surprise to anyone,” Byrd said in a statement Friday. “The audit report is accurate and the concerns are real. I am hopeful the Governor will take time to read the report and take measures to correct these deficiencies that have resulted in the abuse of Oklahomans’ tax dollars.”

Byrd also raised conflict of interest concerns over former Oklahoma Employment Security Commission executive director Shelley Zumwalt, who approved $8.5 million in change order payments and extensions on a no-bid contract for a software company where her husband is vice president.

Attorney General Gentner Drummond called for Zumwalt to resign, saying the audit findings show “wholly inappropriate and potentially unlawful actions.” Zumwalt is now the executive director of the state Department of Tourism and Recreation and is Stitt’s Cabinet secretary of tourism.

“Attorney General Drummond stands by his statement about the audit findings and will continue to work for accountability on behalf of Oklahoma taxpayers,” Drummond’s communications director, Phil Bacharach, said on Friday.

Zumwalt said she will not resign because there never was a conflict of interest issue. She said she disclosed her connection to the software vendor before she was hired at OESC and her husband, who isn’t an owner of the company, never did any work with the state.

Stitt said it was “unfair” to criticize use of no-bid contracts during the early months of the pandemic, a time when emergency declarations were issued and OESC had to process exponentially more unemployment claims.

The governor voiced his support for Zumwalt to continue as a state agency head.

“I think she should stay as the director of tourism,” Stitt said. “All this stuff was known a year ago by the Senate during her (confirmation) hearings, and she’s already been confirmed.”

But her tenure as a Cabinet secretary might come to an end, the governor said.

In a separate dispute between the attorney general and the governor, Drummond issued a legally binding opinion in February on dual office-holding that threw Zumwalt’s status and that of other Cabinet secretaries into doubt.

The opinion focused on Department of Transportation head Tim Gatz, who also led the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and sat on the governor’s Cabinet. The governor said the opinion also threatened other secretaries’ ability to sit on the Cabinet and lead a state agency at the same time.

Stitt, Zumwalt and two other secretaries have sued Drummond to challenge the opinion.

The governor said Zumwalt has offered to resign from his Cabinet.

“She said, ‘Hey, I don’t need to be in the limelight here. If I’m causing this administration any problems, I’ll just step down as secretary and focus on tourism.’ And so that may be what happens.”

State lawmakers appeared to share the state auditor’s concerns over the Office of Management and Enterprise Services’ use of no-bid contracts. The Legislature sent a bill to the governor’s desk on Wednesday that would require all purchases of equipment, products and services to be competitively bid.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to add a statement from State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.