Oklahoma Watch has filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services over its decision to keep secret billions of dollars in applications for federal coronavirus relief funds.
The lawsuit, filed in Oklahoma County district court, wants the state to release the applications under the Open Records Act. The Local Legal Initiative of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is representing Oklahoma Watch in the lawsuit.
“We’re suing the state because it’s the only way to get records the public is entitled to,” said Ted Streuli, executive director of Oklahoma Watch. “There’s $18 billion of requests and almost $2 billion of public money. It’s tax money that’s been paid and is now to be reinvested in the community. These are public agencies, public projects, and there’s every reason in the world the public should know what’s being requested.
“Keeping that in the dark just breeds the possibility of backroom, brother-in-law deals without having some light coming through the window to see what the options are,” Streuli said.
A spokesman for the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
Oklahoma Watch filed an Open Records Act request on March 11 for applications submitted under the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The state has received almost $18 billion in project requests for the $1.87 billion it has to disburse under the law.
The Office of Management and Enterprise Services on March 21 declined to provide the records, saying the applications were temporarily confidential while they are considered by a joint legislative and executive procurement process. The agency cited a section of the state’s purchasing laws and an internal memo that deemed the applications confidential under the Open Records Act.
In effect, the agency is counting all applications for federal money as one giant bid under state procurement rules. The relief funding can be spent on a wide range of infrastructure, health care and economic needs.
Kurt Gwartney, executive director of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, said there should be additional scrutiny of the applications because they show what kind of spending values are a priority for state residents.
“Not only are we dealing with the distribution of money coming into the state, but it’s coming from the federal government, so it’s a double-openness issue,” Gwartney said. “The entire process should be open so Oklahomans can take a look and see what items were rejected, what items were accepted and understand what the state government values in terms of what they want to pay for.”
Both the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency and the state auditor and inspector found irregularities with some of Oklahoma’s CARES Act spending, the first round of coronavirus relief from 2020.
Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City, who joined several House Democrats on Tuesday calling for more transparency in the Legislature’s budget process, said he’s been concerned about the lack of transparency around the federal relief funds.
“Because Gov. Stitt has declared any documents related to ARPA funding are confidential, we don’t know whether they plan on using budgetary money for pet projects or using ARPA money for governmental projects that are routine,” Walke said. “Because there is no transparency, we have to assume the worst. To date, I haven’t seen anything promising coming out of the Gov. Stitt administration regarding transparency and accountability that would help Oklahomans.”
In the petition, attorney Kathryn E. Gardner said the Office of Management and Enterprise Services failed to provide prompt, reasonable access to the records. Gardner said there was no legal basis for the state agency’s refusal to disclose the records.
“The requested records — all proposals, projects, ideas, etc. submitted to the State of Oklahoma’s online portal for ARPA funds — are not a bid or similar offer to which the State Purchasing Director’s authority” applies, Gardner wrote.
Disclosure of the records would enable the media and public to evaluate whether officials were “honestly, faithfully and competently performing their duties as public servants,” Gardner wrote.
“Among other things, disclosure of the requested records will enable members of the press and the public to review and debate the merits of both selected and rejected proposals for public dollars,” Gardner wrote in the petition.
“It’s disappointing that an organization like Oklahoma Watch has to resort to litigation to retrieve documents that are already owned by the public,” Streuli said. “We wouldn’t be able to do that if it wasn’t for organizations like Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides legal counsel in cases like this to help us force public entities to deliver what rightfully belongs to the public in the first place.”
The state’s portal for federal pandemic relief funding was open from October to April 1. State agencies have been among the biggest requesters of funding. They have identified more than 300 projects in excess of $3.7 billion. State officials have previously said any approved projects for federal funding would be public information.
The federal relief funding under the American Rescue Plan has to be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.