Since taking office as the State Auditor & Inspector, Cindy Byrd has handled some political footballs with audits of the state’s largest virtual charter school, the state Health Department and numerous other schools and municipalities.
She’s done so by keeping her focus on one thing.
“I believe people own the government and government entities are just stewards of the people’s checkbook. And my role is to go and make sure those checkbooks are in order,” Byrd said.
She brings a “rural girl” perspective from home life in Coalgate (population 2,000) to her work in Oklahoma City. “I’ve always been a hard worker and, just like anybody else, I want to know where my tax dollars go,” Byrd said.
Though her office strives to fulfill requests under the Open Records Act promptly and completely, there are disputes. Alex Hall, an attorney, filed a records request for emails between Byrd and Andrew Speno, who does contract work for her office, in 2020. This month, Hall filed a lawsuit against Byrd, accusing her of an incomplete response by leaving out more than 50 draft memos.
Byrd has not filed a response to the allegations.
In light of Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to promote open government by the News Leaders Association, we asked Byrd about her work. Her answers were edited lightly for clarity.
What drives you in your commitment to transparency?
“When I got out of college, I went to work for the auditor’s office. It was my first job. I didn’t intend to stay there. For three weeks, I audited property tax payments, and I had a front row seat to watching government take money from its citizens as they came in to make their property tax payments. I knew right then that whatever government gets from its citizenry must be kept to a minimum and every dime needs to be accounted for. I became very passionate in this job watching over what government spends.
“I did that for nearly 20 years before being elected as the state auditor. County government provided one of the greatest examples of transparency in government. County government is required to publish in their local newspaper, their board of county commissioners minutes, their annual salaries, the expenditures they make each month. This reminds those officials that every action they take is being watched closely by the citizens who vote for them. I think that kind of accountability is necessary. I think having to do those steps inspires those officials to be more accountable and I want to bring that same level of accountability to the state level.”
You recently made public an audit of the state Health Department after the attorney general said it would remain confidential. Why? And was that a difficult decision?
“I will stand by my original statement: the taxpayer paid for that audit and they should be able to see it. No information used in conducting that audit was considered confidential. All information was public record and any taxpayer could have obtained it.”
Let’s talk about Epic. How did you address the challenges you’ve faced throughout that audit, such as the refusal to cooperate with subpoenas and other efforts to thwart your office’s work?
“Our job as the auditor is to follow the money. When we went in to start this audit, it was clear that approximately 30% of the funds swept into private accounts. One of the accounts that we asked to look at was the money dedicated for the student learning fund. So from fiscal years 2015 through 2021, $145 million that was dedicated for student learning was transferred into a company’s private account and there was no transparency or accountability for how that money was used. And that was 100% taxpayer dollars. This wasn’t revenue for the company, these were state appropriations specifically for students’ education and activities. Without auditing those records, I couldn’t confirm that those school dollars were spent on the students. The attorney general’s office also believed that those were public records. So we sued to obtain access. The judge ruled that we were to be given the bank statements and the credit card statements. And we’re using that to conduct part two of the audit.”
Are you satisfied with the impact of the Epic audit, from the Legislature or other regulatory agencies?
“It’s been almost 18 months since we released part one of the Epic audit. It has surprised me that more action hasn’t been taken to determine where these funds dedicated for student learning went. I do believe that criminal charges will be filed because I’ve looked at this and this is a very concerning situation.
What can Oklahomans learn from your office’s audits?
“It’s very difficult to understand auditing language. And one of the things that I’ve tried to do since coming in is to make sure we put executive summaries in the front of our reports that will concisely explain the issues found. We are also implementing a new website that will have a map of all 77 counties where any taxpayer can click on their county and pull up any government entity in that county that they might be interested in. A lot of people don’t know what to go look for. So we felt like by limiting this to geographical boundaries, we could help them be an informed citizen at home. Of course, we also have the state agencies and we’re trying to make that more accessible. I want taxpayers to know that we are out here watching over their tax dollars and as their state auditor, I’m going to make sure they know what I find.”
What encouragement or suggestion would you offer Oklahomans who may be intimidated or discouraged at the thought of staying informed on how state agencies and government?
“Don’t be intimidated. Government belongs to you. You have every right to ask questions and ask for information. And if my office can ever be of assistance to you in helping you get the information you need, you need only to call.”
What changes in state government would you like to see that would make it more visible and accountable to Oklahomans?
“I think it was a great step to put Oklahoma’s checkbook online, but it’s still very difficult for the average user to navigate. We have got to implement a system that is easy for any taxpayer to quickly get to the information they want online.”
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.