Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter speaks on the State Capitol’s south lawn during a YWCA’s wreath ceremony in October 2018. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

On the heels of reports about questionable spending on COVID-19 supplies and equipment by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the state attorney general on Tuesday requested an investigative audit of the agency.  

The request comes just two years after the health department received a critical report into its spending and accounting practices under former Health Commissioner Terry Cline.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter sent letters Tuesday to interim Health Commissioner Gary Cox and State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd. The letters were also copied to Jerome Loughridge, secretary of health and mental health, and Gino DeMarco, the health department’s “PPE czar.”

The letter to Cox, who still must be confirmed by the Oklahoma Senate, reminds him to preserve records and not retaliate against state employees who question spending.  

The audit request was first reported by The Oklahoman. Earlier Tuesday, the newspaper said the health department called off a $9.5 million purchase of personal protective equipment at the last minute after concerns were raised by the FBI about the vendor.

Last week, the Associated Press reported Oklahoma officials had spent $2 million to buy hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted by the White House as a possible treatment for COVID-19. The Food and Drug Association has since advised against using the drug for treatment outside of clinical trials or close hospital supervision.

At a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he directed his team, including DeMarco, to quickly get PPE equipment and other supplies. The federal government, under the CARES Act, has told states it will reimburse them for “necessary expenditures” related to COVID-19.

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a press conference in Oklahoma City on April 7, 2020 where the state has assembled a stockpile of personal protection equipment and medical supplies for the COVID-19 response. (Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman)

“I told him to go out and procure gowns, gloves, N-95 masks, build up the Strategic National Stockpile,” Stitt said. “We knew we were getting reimbursed for that. Also, in early March, hydroxychloroquine was also shown to be a treatment. So we went out and procured that as well. Now there’s some other evidence that it may not be as effective. But I was being proactive and to try to protect Oklahomans.”

On Tuesday night, Stitt issued a statement saying, “In light of Congress providing Oklahoma with $1.2 billion in funds to respond to COVID-19, my administration arranged a few weeks ago a strategic financial team of public employees to closely monitor COVID-related transactions and to be prepared to account for every penny to Congress and the federal government. It is disappointing that theattorney general would see the need to entangle the agency with an investigation when it is in the midst of responding to the most historic pandemic of our time.” He said he expected “quick and thorough compliance” to any inquiry.

In a separate statement, Cox said the agency has been transparent so far and will provide all information to Byrd’s office.

“Every step of the way, the agency has been above board and quick to provide information, where legally able, on our transactions to anyone who asks, and we are confident the financial review will demonstrate our efforts for excellence.”

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