Statewide elected officials and legislative leaders raised concerns last week after the release of a bombshell audit showing widespread questionable state spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

But it will likely take months for the release of additional reviews pinpointing who exactly is to blame and who — if anyone — could face criminal charges.

The State Auditor and Inspector’s review of spending in Fiscal Year 2021, which includes the second half of 2020 when federal relief dollars began flowing to states, found $29.3 million in questionable expenses. The audit condemned oversight and compliance issues with Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER, programs that led to wealthier families receiving assistance over those facing financial hardship.

Last year, Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier investigated the state’s lax oversight of the Bridge the Gap program, a branch of the GEER initiative, that allowed grant recipients to buy TVs, gaming consoles and Christmas trees instead of education supplies.

“If the federal government decides the state must pay back these questioned costs, you and I will end up paying the bill,” State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd said in a statement. “If that happens, gross mismanagement and lack of compliance and oversight will be to blame.”

In an interview Thursday with News 9, Attorney General Gentner Drummond said an investigative audit of GEER spending will shed greater light on what went wrong and who’s responsible. That examination, which Drummond requested in April, should be completed by the fall and may include recommendations for criminal charges, he said.

“I just think we empowered people who didn’t have the qualifications or skills or knowledge to administer the money,” Drummond told News 9.

In statements to Oklahoma Watch, representatives for the Department of Education and the Governor’s office said ClassWallet is responsible for the issues and the vendor should work with the federal government to recoup misspent funds. Drummond, who dismissed a state lawsuit against ClassWallet earlier this year, pushed back on that claim in interviews last week, saying ClassWallet followed instructions from the state is not culpable.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, issued a statement calling the audit “extremely troubling” and said the House would consider legislative actions to avoid similar misspending in the future.

What are your takeaways from the audit? Any thoughts or suggestions on how the state should try to claw back the misspent funds? Let me know at I’m taking some vacation time this week and will reply when I return.

Democracy Watch will publish next on Monday, July 17.

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Tweet Watch

In a 6-3 ruling issued last week, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the authority of state courts and governors to review congressional district maps and laws affecting federal elections.

In Moore v. Harper, North Carolina argued that state legislatures retain the sole authority to regulate federal elections under the elections clause of the U.S. Constitution. Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said state courts have a long history of striking down laws that violate state constitutions and nothing justifies a special exception for elections. 

What I’m Reading This Week

  • ‘Consequence’: Jury Finds Former Rep. Dan Kirby Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter: Kirby, who was elected to the Legislature in 2008 and resigned in 2017, was intoxicated to the point of impairment when he drove off a road and wrecked his motorcycle near Checotah in July 2022. A jury found him guilty of causing that wreck, which killed his girlfriend Sheryl Bichsel. [NonDoc]
  • Senate Fails to Override Stitt Veto of Compact Extension Bill: Senate Bill 26x would have extended the tobacco compacts until Dec. 31, 2024, but the override attempt fell one vote shy of the 32 needed. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the Senate does have the required votes to override the vetoes but some members who would have voted yes were not able to attend the special session. The Senate will convene again this month. [Tulsa World]
  • Oklahoma AG Says Latest Supreme Court Decision ‘Promising’ For Foes of Catholic Charter School: U.S. Supreme Court justices declined to hear a lawsuit challenging a dress code at a North Carolina charter school that required girls to wear skirts. The decision could provide support for the legal argument that charter schools have to abide by the same laws as other public schools and are not private entities. [The Oklahoman]

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