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Audit finds Oklahoma 'dropped the ball' on pandemic relief money from federal government

 Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd speaks at a press conference on October 1, 2020.
Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector Cindy Byrd speaks at a press conference on October 1, 2020.

State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd says Oklahoma “dropped the ball on compliance and oversight” of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

She estimates taxpayers are at risk of having to return about $30 million dollars in questionable expenses. The findings were revealed in a 256-page audit report released Tuesday.

“Oklahoma has systemic issues that make me very concerned for taxpayers,” she said in a statement. “If the federal government decides the State must pay back these questioned costs, you and I will end up paying the bill. If that happens, gross mismanagement and lack of compliance and oversight will be to blame.”

The audit found the state did not obtain sufficient documentation that all payments went to COVID-related purposes for CARES Act programs. There were also problems with the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, or GEER, programs — including Bridge The Gap, which was overseen by now-State Superintendent Ryan Walters.

That program was meant to help low-income families buy educational supplies necessary for remote learning. The audit found $1.7 million went to things like furniture, kitchen appliances, power tools and entertainment.

Attorney General Gentner Drummond calls the findings “extremely troubling,” in a news release. Drummond said he won’t tolerate what amounts to a pervasive culture of waste, mismanagement and apparent fraud.

Other areas of concern identified by Byrd include:

  • $1.6 million in questioned costs of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help households pay for rent or utilities during the pandemic. Byrd said an Oklahoma City foundation charged excessive management fees for distributing the program and the state failed to stop the foundation.
  • $6.5 million in questioned costs for the Stay In School Program, which paid out private school tuition scholarships to families. Grant objectives were disregarded for who received the money and “as a result, 657 students of low-income families who qualified for the SIS program did not get the financial assistance they requested because the funds were exhausted,” according to the audit report.
  • The state left GEER administration to an outside entity — widely reported as Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, which was then run by Walters — instead of handling it internally. That led to a lack of oversight. “Sadly, millions of tax dollars were misspent because certain individuals who were put in charge of managing these programs seemingly ignored federal grant guidelines,” Byrd said.
  • The state failed to ensure compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in its grant processes.

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Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma.
Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
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