Concerns over financial conduct prompts AG audit of turnpike authority
Mar. 15—Attorney General Gentner Drummond, citing "swirling allegations" involving the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, has asked state Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd to conduct an investigative audit of the agency, his office announced Wednesday.
In a letter to Byrd, Drummond pointed to recent conversations with lawmakers, community leaders, private citizens and state employees "who have expressed a wide array of concerns with the financial conduct of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority."
"These concerns include but are not limited to improper transfers between OTA and the Department of Transportation; improper contracting and purchasing practices; and inadequate internal financial controls," he wrote in a news release.
In December, a judge ruled in Cleveland County District Court in favor of more than 200 Norman residents who accused the turnpike authority of violating the Open Meeting Act in agendas posted in December 2021, January 2022 and February 2022.
Seminole County District Judge Timothy L. Olsen ruled OTA "willfully violated" the act by failing to sufficiently state plans to build two toll roads in Norman.
Drummond said he found the violation "particularly troubling."
"Such a blatant disregard for openness and transparency suggests to me a willingness to engage in any manner of unlawful conduct," he wrote in the release.
OTA announced in January it planned to appeal the district court ruling.
Tassie Hirschfeld, a plaintiff in the open meeting act lawsuit, said she is glad Drummond requested the audit.
"I am very grateful to have an attorney general who is committed to ensuring state agencies operate honestly and appropriately," she told The Transcript on Wednesday. "This is an essential step in restoring confidence in state government."
Hirschfeld's home is near the path of the agency's proposed turnpike in the Lake Thunderbird Watershed. The Oklahoma University professor studies state and federal government corruption.
"The turnpike authority has engaged in a number of questionable activities over the past few years," she said. "I am relieved to know the state auditor's office will conduct a thorough investigation.
"The public needs to know that any wrongdoing will be documented and those responsible will be held accountable."
Attorneys for the plaintiffs, Stan Ward, Richard Labarthe and Alexey Tarasov responded with a joint statement.
"Our many clients who've been adversely impacted by the Turnpike Authority's cavalier and questionable business practices are heartened to see that Attorney General Drummond appears to share our concerns, and the concerns of so many Oklahomans, that the OTA has been functioning as a rogue agency with zero regard for openness and the rule of law," they wrote.
"We're optimistic that when all is said and done, Auditor Byrd and her team will ferret out the truth of what appears to be an empire of crony capitalism, secrecy and mismanagement."
According to state law, it "shall be the duty" of the state auditor to provide an audit at the attorney general's request.
"Likewise, it shall be the duty of the State Auditor and Inspector, upon request of the Attorney General, to furnish him with experienced auditors and/or accountants from the personnel of his department to make audits and check records for the Attorney General in any case to be tried or in any matter being investigated by the Attorney General," the law states. "The cost of such services shall be borne by the entity audited."
In response to Drummond's request for an audit, OTA called a news conference Wednesday afternoon at the state Department of Transportation Building in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz, the turnpike authority's executive director, said OTA is not required by law to be audited. The state audit, he added, would be the agency's first.
"It's not something we're concerned about," he said. "It's something that the Turnpike Authority welcomes.
Gatz denied allegations OTA and ODOT had improperly transferred money or assets between the two agencies.
"We're very careful to keep those two revenue streams separate," he said.
Gatz said the agency is audited every year and has never failed to implement improvements or changes based on those audits, adding OTA continues to enjoy "a double A-minus rating, which is one of the best bond ratings in the country."
Mindy Wood covers City and County government news and notable lawsuits for The Transcript. Reach her at email@example.com or 405-416-4420.