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Education Department slush fund money eventually went back to state of Oklahoma

Former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett says the use of the funds was not only legal and appropriate, but saved taxpayers money by soliciting private donations to pay for food and drinks served at the conferences.
by Randy Ellis Published: March 9, 2012

Two accounts that a state investigation found were used as slush funds by the state Education Department over the course of 10 years were closed in 2011 with about $780 remaining, after holding more than $90,000 a year earlier, according to Education Department officials.

The investigation was released Wednesday by the state Auditor and Inspector's Office and detailed how state Education Department officials spent about $2.3 million over the course of 10 years out of two undisclosed funds.

The accounts were used to purchase food and alcohol at annual education conferences hosted under the leadership of former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett.

Garrett said the use of the funds was not only legal and appropriate, but saved taxpayers money by soliciting private donations to pay for food and drinks served at the conferences.

“Really the $2.3 million is a savings to Oklahoma,” Garrett said. “Those are monies raised over 10 years. They were totally audited. ... The educators of this state felt like it was very crucial to have a two-day conference where they could understand the new laws and the amended laws.”

State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones said because the funds in the account were solicited by state employees, on state time, they were state funds that belonged in state coffers, not hidden accounts without oversight.

Jones said it's up to law enforcement and state leadership to determine where the investigation will go.

“It's shocking if indeed the findings are true,” said House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, who had not read the entire audit report. “I do not believe it is appropriate to expend government money, taxpayer resources on nongovernment services.”

Aaron Cooper, spokesman for the governor, said Gov. Mary Fallin is talking with her legal counsel and the Attorney General's office about where to go from here.

“The governor is committed to transparency and accountability in state government and will work to ensure this does not happen again,” Cooper said in a written statement.

Garrett said they began the process of closing the accounts — which were held by the nonprofit Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission — when the commission's relevance began to diminish in 2009.

She said that they reached an agreement to have the Oklahoma State School Boards Association manage the accounts. OSSBA is a nonprofit organization that serves member school districts across the state.

Contracts signed by Garrett show that the money was to be transferred to new accounts managed by OSSBA, and the association would receive $25,000 a year to manage the accounts. The contract also stipulates that an annual audit will be paid for out of the new accounts.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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