Employees with the state Education Department set up a nonprofit that was a “front organization” to solicit private donations to fund a state education conference in 2011, according to an audit released Monday by the state auditor's office.
The nonprofit had three board members. One was Ashley Hahn, who is an employee of the Education Department. The others were Hahn's uncle and friend. Although the board never met or adopted bylaws, paperwork filed with the Oklahoma Secretary of State indicates the board did meet. The paperwork contains only Hahn's signature and the handwritten names of the two other board members.
State Superintendent Janet Barresi is not the first in her office to be criticized by the auditor's office for how they handled funds. An audit released earlier this year detailed how Barresi's predecessor, Sandy Garrett, had used a “slush fund” hidden within a nonprofit to fund the education conferences.
An audit of the nonprofit set up under Barresi's watch came following a story in The Oklahoman that questioned the legitimacy of the organization.
“Our investigation found OSDE still maintained operational control of the event and utilized state personnel in a questionable and likely inappropriate manner,” State Auditor Gary Jones said. “It's clear that OSDE personnel were primarily involved with raising and collecting funds and that it shared responsibility for contracting, disbursing funds and authorizing expenditures of the nonprofit.”
Barresi said that she accepts the findings of the audit.
“I was the one that asked for the audit and I appreciate the thorough work that Auditor Jones did,” Barresi said. “While these were procedures that were used in the past, we have new guidelines in place that are very strict and very precise.”
Barresi said the department is ready to move forward.
The last education conference the department held was paid for almost entirely by state funds or donations accepted by the Education Board on behalf of the state, Barresi said.