TULSA, Okla. – An investigative report aired on KJRH Channel 2 in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 3 has highlighted findings from a corruption probe that has put city officials on the defensive. The report by journalist Marla Carter titled “Tulsa vehicles putting public, employees in possible danger” cites City documents made available through a disciplinary action taken against a City administrator, Walter Van Hughes, who was accused of presiding over a department that has “so much corruption and that it’s an embarrassment to the City.”
The complaint which started the investigation was made by an anonymous party, corroborated by reports made by employees to AFSCME Local 1180 representatives, as indicated in a press release dated October 2, 2013. The release cites several allegations reported by employees. Amongst those allegations, employees reported that management had been “artificially inflating expenses charged to other City departments.” In response to AFSCME’s release, cited in the City’s case against Walter Van Hughes, the City stated that “the allegations made in the press release were unfounded.” However, in all the following paragraphs published in the City’s own findings, including reports by various administrators and department heads, the allegations are affirmed. Additionally, the City’s own allegations charged Walter Van Hughes with “sustained…negligence”, “inefficiency”, “incompetence” which posed a potentially “catastrophic” danger to both employees and citizens.
The danger posed to citizens and employees is attributed to failures by management to hire adequate staff, provide necessary equipment and implement required safety trainings for employees. In Van Hughes’ defense, he claims that he was unable to perform his duties due to lack of resources from the City’s executive level. But additional findings provided in the City’s report show that management diverted much-needed funds to their own personal expenses.
According to a report provided by the City of Tulsa’s Human Resources Department:
“Travel funds budgeted within EMD have been used in large part by administrative personnel, rather than directing those funds to allow mechanics to attend training. Often, mechanics had training available through a vendor at no cost but the City of Tulsa must cover the travel expenses. Employees indicated that they were often told they could not take part in this training due to lack of available funds.”
The Human Resources report also notes that over 61.56% of the departments allotted travel budget went to management for “personnel conferences.”
Employees claim that many of these conferences involved non-work-related activities such as golfing.
According to another City official, former EMD Director Brent Jones overbilled the City’s Street Department on an order for winter equipment. Specifically, the report states, “EMD personnel merely placed an order for this equipment – which resulted in a $75,000 charge…”. The allegations continue stating that management regularly used City facilities, employees and materials for their own personal gain.
In response to Channel 2’s reports, the City of Tulsa issued a statement emphasizing efforts to correct the problem. But many employees remain skeptical due to the fact that these issues have been widely known, even at the executive level of City government. As the City’s documents indicate, Tulsa’s City Manager, Jim Twombly, met weekly with the management of EMD for several years and yet no action was taken until a report was made by an anonymous party and union representatives began following up on employees’ concerns.
In addition to these regular meetings between the Mayor’s representative Jim Twombly and EMD management, other documents indicate that City officials have been aware of employees concerns for over three decades. Tulsa World articles reaching back as far as 1985 highlight mechanics efforts to draw public attention to corruption within the City. Additionally, employees circulated petitions both in 1986 and in 2002 to convene a Grand Jury investigation into the Equipment Maintenance Division of the City of Tulsa.
At this point, there is a great deal of speculation as to why and how taxpayer dollars could be squandered so blatantly under the nose of the City’s administration. Some employees that have asked to remain anonymous assert that a “kickback operation” in which EMD managers deliberately hike up costs to other City departments to inflate the EMD budget, use public funds to buy equipment specifically for the purpose of reselling it at a cut rate to private parties. These claims, however, have yet to be substantiated with concrete evidence.
Union officials indicate that members of the City Safety Committee have been dispatched to review the status of vehicles and are awaiting their findings. Reporters indicate that City Manager, Jim Twombly, at the Mayor’s office has been unavailable for comment.