By Rep. Rick West
The House Special Investigation Committee kicked off interviews last week with four of the state’s top officials. The meetings revealed some information about misspending at the Oklahoma State Health Department (OSDH), but there are still lots of questions to be answered.
The committee interviewed Gov. Mary Fallin’s Chief of Staff Chris Benge, former chief of staff and current Interim Director for the Office of Management & Enterprise Services (OMES) Denise Northrup and Secretary of Finance & Revenue Preston Doerflinger. Doerflinger is also the former head of OMES and is currently serving as interim director for OSDH. Later in the week, State Auditor Gary Jones came to testify as well.
The auditor’s office was performing a routine audit on the health department when they first became aware of a serious issue at the agency. Jones said health department staffers came forward in July about possible misspending, which caused his office to jump into immediate action. He confirmed and finalized financial information in August before telling Doerflinger about his worries on September 1. Jones testified that he told Doerflinger there were “major concerns” and that the health department may not be able to make payroll in a few months. But during his interview, Doerflinger led lawmakers to believe he was only alerted to major concerns at the health department in late October.
Now I’m not an attorney, but it’s clear that somebody isn’t telling the truth. And I’m tempted to believe the person who has documents to back up his story.
Jones said the health department had been “artificially inflating” numbers so the agency could pay for programs it didn’t have funding for. A yearly audit should be released at the end of this month, and I expect we’ll see more details then.
There are lots of changes currently happening at the health department as it attempts to right the ship. Doerflinger, as interim director, spoke last week about the dozens of people laid off earlier this month and the more than 150 who will lose their jobs in March. He said these layoffs were already in the works before he took over, and he told lawmakers there won’t be a disruption in services. Still, these layoffs are happening mostly at the county health departments – not the central office.
Lawmakers on the committee have asked Doerflinger, Benge and Northrup to provide documents about the information at OSDH, but none brought papers with them to the committee meeting. I’m hoping my colleagues will continue to push for the information in the coming days and weeks. Oklahoma taxpayers deserve straight answers, especially when $31 million has been misspent.
On a more joyful note, I want to sincerely wish all of you a very merry Christmas next week. My prayer is that Oklahomans truly take time to reflect on the meaning of the season. There really is nothing better to celebrate than the birth of Jesus Christ.
God bless, and may you all enjoy time with loved ones this next week.