The Frontier: Pandemic-related spending at Oklahoma Department of Health violated state constitution, audit finds | News

The Oklahoma State Department of Health violated the state constitution when it paid millions of dollars up front for pandemic supplies, an investigative audit has found.

Office of Oklahoma State Auditor Cindy Byrd released the 26-page report Wednesday after The border reported last week, Attorney General John O’Connor’s office said the document was not a public document and would keep it confidential.

Byrd said she decided to release the audit after receiving an open records request and consulting with outside legal counsel.

“I have concluded that there is no Oklahoma law that gives a state official the authority to withhold this information,” Byrd said in a statement.

A health department spokesperson said the agency “believes its response to this extraordinary public health crisis was prompt and effective within the limitations of the resources and infrastructure available at the time.”

“Procuring vital personal protective equipment was paramount to the state’s ability to respond quickly to the pandemic,” the emailed statement said. “The purchases were made amid a global supply chain crisis where acquisitions needed to be made quickly.”

In a statement Wednesday, Stitt said the pandemic was an unprecedented crisis.

“From the beginning, my top priority has been protecting the health and safety of Oklahomans,” Stitt said. “In early March 2020, we were one of the first states to close nursing homes to protect the most vulnerable, saving countless lives. To keep hospitals open and our frontline workers safe, I have issued executive orders to get PPE to our state as quickly as possible.

“Looking back today, we can recognize that there were technical errors while knowing that we did everything we could to protect the citizens of this state for an unimaginable time.”

In 2020, Stitt’s executive orders suspended many of the legal requirements of the normal purchasing process, such as obtaining competitive bids or purchasing through preferred state vendors, so agencies could quickly respond to urgent needs for personal protective equipment and other equipment.

The audit revealed issues with the agency’s payment and inventory records. Auditors received hundreds of supporting documents for purchases in “disarray”, according to the audit.

The Department of Health made 42 one-time purchases over the $250,000 limit allowed by the governor’s executive order, the audit found.

Prepaying for products or services was not allowed under the executive orders, a violation of Oklahoma’s Constitution, the audit found.

“Furthermore, several AG opinions hold the advance payments to be unconstitutional and violate the referenced Constitution,” the audit said.

When the coronavirus arrived in Oklahoma in March 2020, Stitt named Gino DeMarco his “Tsar PPEand put him in charge of PPE purchasing decisions for the state health department. DeMarco was also deputy director of state tourism at the time.

Because DeMarco was not a Health Department employee, agency employees were not always aware of purchase details, the audit found.

Then-Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge issued a note who raised DeMarco’s spending limit from $250,000 to $3 million for one-time orders, even though he did not have the authority to do so, the audit found.

The state paid more than $5.4 million in goods that were not received, the audit found.

The agency has since either received the missing products it ordered or was working to get refunds, an agency spokeswoman said. The border Last week.

The Department of Health also paid $80,000 in unauthorized middleman fees, the audit found.

The audit also called a $750,000 state contract with Shyft Partners LLC for project management “dubious” and said the services provided by the company did not appear unique.

“The uniqueness of the contractor appears to be that he had established relationships with the management team,” the audit found.

In April 2020, then-Attorney General Mike Hunter asked the state auditor to investigate state health department spending, including the use of federal relief funds. The request follows reports of drastic measures the agency had taken to secure protective gear during the pandemic, including an attempt to spend $9.5 million on N95 masks from a company. under investigation by the FBI.

Byrd’s office shared the completed Health Department spending investigation report with the Oklahoma attorney general’s office last year, she said. The border Last week. The state auditor shared the document five days before then-Attorney General Mike Hunter resigned in May 2021. Governor Kevin Stitt nominated O’Connor about two months later.

Byrd said she felt “legally and ethically” obligated to make the audit public.

“Oklahoma taxpayers paid for this – they should be able to see it,” she said in a statement.

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