OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s new attorney general will take a hands-on approach to high-profile criminal probes of two state agencies.
Gentner Drummond‘s office will take the lead on working with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation as it scrutinizes a sweetheart deal between the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation and Swadley’s Bar-B-Q.
“This case includes allegations of fraud involving millions of dollars in taxpayer funds,” Drummond said in a Sunday news release. “Beginning immediately, my office will join with the OSBI to thoroughly investigate this matter. The Office of Attorney General is the appropriate entity to determine if the findings merit prosecution and, if they do, to prosecute any wrongdoers.”
The Tourism Department previously paid Swadley’s nearly $17 million to renovate and operate several state park restaurants in a deal that came under immense scrutiny when it appeared that the local barbecue chain was overpaid for its work.
Former Attorney General John O’Connor, who was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, declined to probe the Swadley’s deal. Instead, former Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater asked the OSBI to investigate to determine whether any criminal wrongdoing occurred.
After speaking with Drummond, new Oklahoma County District Attorney Vicki Behenna recently asked the OSBI to disclose its findings to the Attorney General’s Office.
The state canceled its contracts with Swadley’s last spring and then sued the barbecue business for breach of contract.
Drummond also is taking from the District Attorney’s Office oversight of an investigation into the Commissioners of the Land Office.
Prater asked the OSBI to investigate after the Tulsa World reported last year that the head of the state agency fired an internal auditor after she raised conflict of interest concerns about a company hired to manage the agency’s investments. Land Office Secretary Elliot Chambers then resigned in August.
Shortly after taking office, Drummond also took control of the Epic Charter Schools case that his predecessor relinquished last year. Epic’s co-founders and its longtime chief financial officer have been accused of bilking the school out of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.
April 28, 2022 video. Rep. Ryan Martinez speaks about ongoing investigation.
It’s been just a couple of weeks since the River Parks Authority announced that it had incorporated a sandstone stairway into one of its new pedestrian trails on Turkey Mountain.
Now there’s more Turkey Mountain news: Work has begun on the construction of five miles of moderate to difficult multiuse trails at the urban wilderness. The project is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“These trails were ones that we had hoped to build but didn’t have any funding for, but now we do,” said River Parks’ Ryan Howell, who is overseeing the construction of 25 to 30 miles of new trails on the mountain.
Phase 1 of the five-phase, multimillion-dollar project initially focused on the construction of 11.5 miles of less difficult multipurpose trails. Howell said River Parks is using funds from the state’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust to add five miles of more challenging trails.
“We kind of built trails that were easy to moderate at first,” he said. “Those are the ones that make the park accessible to everybody, and now we are building ones that are going to allow people to improve their skill level.”
Howell said the new trails are a nod to the many visitors to Turkey Mountain who thrive on more technical and challenging trails.
“They want rocks in their way, and they want it to be a difficult experience, so that is something that the older trails at Turkey Mountain have offered, but the new trails, it’s not something that they offer,” so far, Howell said. “We are going back in, and we are actually making a trail that is both technically challenging but also very sustainable and maintainable.”
The trails project is part of River Parks’ Turkey Mountain Master Plan. Construction of the new trails began in November 2021 and is expected to take at least three more years to complete.
Public and private dollars are being used to fund the new trail system, which Howell estimates will cost approximately $4 million to $7 million.
River Parks has raised approximately $5.1 million for the project, including $2.1 million from the tobacco settlement, and has spent $1.4 million.
Overall, Howell said, about 13 to 14 miles of new trails have been completed.
Phase 2 — which is about half done — will include not only the sandstone stairway along the new pedestrian trail but roughly four miles of dedicated downhill trails for mountain bikers.
Phase 3, to be located south of Turkey Mountain’s lower parking lot, will have a mix of family friendly hiking trails and two to three miles of easy to moderate downhill trails for mountain bikers.
Howell said River Parks officials are still working on the details of Phase 4, which will include a mountain bike skills park as well as hiking and biking trails on 80 acres behind the water tower south of 61st Street.
A number of local establishments offer their own twists on hot chocolate, and James Watts and Grace Wood share some of their favorites.
A new 18-bed progressive care and intensive care unit that officially opened Monday at Ascension St. John Broken Arrow is expected to serve around 1,500 patients a year, officials said.
Hospital officials and community leaders gathered Monday for a grand opening and ribbon-cutting for the new unit, which occupies the sixth floor of the hospital at 1000 W. Boise Circle.
The $8 million investment includes four ICU beds and 14 progressive care beds, while adding nearly 40 new jobs, officials said.
“Today is obviously an exciting day for this hospital,” said Matthew Adams, Ascension St. John Broken Arrow president. “We knew there was a lack of intensive care beds in eastern Oklahoma. The COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately only drove that point home further.”
“Many hours of designing, discussing, planning, building and hiring have led us to this point today,” he said.
Jennifer Conway, Broken Arrow Chamber of Commerce president, said: “We’re so thankful for St. John’s investment in this. This means so much to us on many levels.”
“When businesses look to relocate to our community or expand, one of the top priorities is quality healthcare,” Conway added. “And whenever we make one more investment in that, we’re that much stronger as a community, expanding access and responsiveness for our residents, and ensuring that when they have to care for a loved one, they don’t have to drive very far. They can stay close to home.”
St. John officials said the expansion complements the bed expansion at Ascension St. John Owasso and the future Ascension St. John Rehabilitation Hospital of Owasso, a 40-bed facility that is expected to open in March.
“We are really excited to offer an extension of the services that we offer many across our ministry — the ability to open up additional beds that offer higher acuity to patients and their families that live here in our community,” said Ascension St. John CEO Jeff Nowlin.
Adams added: “The city of Broken Arrow continues to be a growing, vibrant community, and as Broken Arrow’s only acute care hospital, it is our responsibility to grow alongside it.”
With 10 candidates from whom to choose, Tulsa Public Schools’ Board of Education is now on the clock to appoint a District 2 representative.
The candidate list originally released by TPS Monday afternoon includes Weslie Alexander, Orion Banos Moguel, Quinton Brown, Dustin DeVore, Jacqueline Evans, Daniel Grove, Paul Hall, Diamond Marshall, Sharita Pratt, Jasmine Stewart and KanDee Washington.
However, Alexander withdrew his candidacy after the initial list was released Monday afternoon, a district representative said.
A spokeswoman for TPS confirmed Monday afternoon that an additional 10 candidates who submitted applications for the seat either withdrew before the list’s publication or were deemed ineligible because they did not meet at least one of the criteria listed on the application.
As of press time, the board has scheduled special meetings for Wednesday and Thursday to interview the eligible candidates.
At Monday night’s meeting, President Stacey Woolley said the vacant District 2 seat will come back before the board as an action agenda item at its Feb. 13 meeting.
Among the 10 candidates, six identified themselves either at Monday night’s meeting or on their application as TPS graduates, and two said they have children either currently attending school in the district or already graduated from TPS.
Banos Moguel is a self-employed naturalized citizen originally from Mexico.
A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Brown serves on McLain High School’s foundation and is a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association.
DeVore is a former teacher who has worked at both the secondary and collegiate levels.
Evans, a graduate of McLain High School and Langston University, operates a child care facility that partners with Tulsa Educare.
Grove, a graduate of Tulsa Community College, ran unsuccessfully for the Tulsa City Council District 3 seat in 2022.
Hall is self-employed and a graduate of both Memorial High School and the University of Phoenix.
Marshall, a former Teach for America corps member, currently works as a community organizer.
Pratt, a 2011 graduate of Nathan Hale High School, is a member of the district’s Early Childhood Parent Council and is a master teacher at CAP Tulsa.
Stewart, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, is a former social worker. She currently owns and operates a day care.
Washington is also a graduate of Booker T. Washington. She has had five children attend TPS and was one of nine applicants for the District 2 seat in August 2018, when former board member Amy Shelton resigned.
Citing her family’s upcoming move out of state, District 2 representative Judith Barba Perez formally tendered her resignation at the board’s Jan. 9 meeting, effective at the conclusion of Monday night’s meeting.
Jan. 9, 2023 video. District 2 representative Judith Barba Perez's resignation will be effective Jan. 23, as she plans to move out of state. V…
Under state law, the board has up to 60 days to appoint Barba Perez’s successor until the 2024 election cycle or, failing that, to call for a special election to fill the remaining two years on her term.
Barba Perez was absent Monday night.
With the board utilizing boundaries approved in December, TPS campuses within District 2 include Emerson, Kendall-Whittier, McKinley, Mitchell, Owen and Sequoyah elementary schools; Unity Learning Academy; Carver Middle School; Booker T. Washington High School; and Will Rogers College Middle and High School.