NEWS

Oklahoma tourism leader resigns, state files lawsuit against Swadley's after parks deal

Dave Cathey
Oklahoman

The state said goodbye to the Winchester Burger on Monday, and on Friday Gov. Kevin Stitt said goodbye to the man it was named after, Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Executive Director Jerry Winchester.

Stitt announced he'd accepted the embattled department head's resignation during a short news conference at the state Capitol, where he also announced the state had filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Swadley's Foggy Bottom Kitchen in Oklahoma County District Court earlier in the day. 

Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Executive Director, Jerry Winchester, speaks during a news conference to talk about upgrades to Oklahoma state parks and local tourism campaigns in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

Stitt didn't go into detail about the suit against Swadley's, which operated Foggy Bottom Kitchens in six parks until the Tourism and Recreation Department canceled the contract earlier this week.

Despite leaving the department under a criminal investigation and an ongoing forensic audit due to the deal with Swadley's, Winchester's contributions were praised by Stitt.

“I've accepted the resignation of Jerry Winchester as executive director of tourism," Stitt said. "We averaged 9.5 (million) visitors at state parks in the last couple years. Under Jerry's leadership we did 12.5 million visitors this year. That’s an Increase of 3 million people coming to the great state of Oklahoma.” 

Winchester wrote in his letter to the governor: "I regret that in the best interest of the department, I feel it necessary to resign as executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism & Recreation Department effective immediately. I don't want my continued involvement to overshadow the great accomplishments that have been achieved these past three years."

Letter Jerry Winchester sent to Gov. Kevin Stitt on April 29 resigning from the position of executive director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. [Image provided]

Winchester expressed confidence ongoing audits will show the department "has been acting in the best interests of the state."

The governor ended the news conference after less than six minutes, and left the room without taking questions.

The moves come a day after House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, announced the formation of a special House committee to investigate potential misuse of taxpayer funds through the vendor agreement the Tourism and Recreation Department made with Swadley's to install and operate restaurants in state parks.

What we know: Deal between Swadley's Bar-B-Q and Oklahoma Tourism

Signage along State Highway 8 for the Foggy Bottom Kitchen restaurant at Roman Nose state park in Watonga, Okla. on Tuesday, April, 26, 2022.

"I welcome the Legislature’s involvement," Stitt said Friday. "We are committed to get to the bottom of this. There are a lot of different investigations going on right now, and I think we can all agree the most important things are protecting the taxpayers and shining a light on any corruption or any bad actors.” 

The state paid Swadley's about $16.7 million between the spring of 2020 and summer of 2021 to install restaurants and make capital improvements to park lodges, structures and parking lots. Five Foggy Bottom Kitchens, with a menu featuring the Winchester Burger, were originally planned before another was added in Quartz Mountain last year.

A report from the Legislative Office of Transparency in March brought attention to sloppy accounting and possible overcharges. The Tourism and Recreation Department canceled its deal with Swadley's on Monday, citing "potential fraudulent activity" and closed all six Foggy Bottom Kitchens.

The Oklahoman has reported irregularities in the bidding process, a pre-existing relationship between Winchester and Swadley's owner Brent Swadley, and work executed on state property without proper permits.

Foggy Bottom breakdown: Staff left stranded as legislators call for tourism director's job

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and tourism director Jerry Winchester at a meeting of the Oklahoma Tourism Commission on April 1, 2022.

Stitt didn't name a new executive director or an interim agency head, but he said Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell would take on a greater role overseeing the agency. Pinnell said he would approach the task with clarity, humility and courage.

"We're gonna be fully transparent in this process, protecting taxpayers and the investments to be made across the state of Oklahoma," Pinnell said Friday. 

Swadley's released a statement on Friday in response to earlier action taken by the state: “Swadley’s is proud of the work it has done in Oklahoma’s beautiful state parks. As part of an effort to modernize those parks, Swadley’s entered into a contract with the Oklahoma State Tourism Department in March of 2020 to redesign, rebuild, and revitalize six restaurants on state park properties. Despite the logistical complexities presented by the location of these restaurant sites, Swadley’s completed its work on the six restaurants in less than two years.

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Friday that the state has filed suit against Swadley's Foggy Bottom Kitchen. [Image provided]

"From the beginning, Swadley’s acknowledged and accepted that this project would be a difficult undertaking, but the extent of the decay and neglect at the various restaurants made it more difficult than either party initially anticipated."

The statement also said the COVID-19 pandemic increased costs and restrictions on indoor dining but, "despite these immense challenges, Swadley’s completed and opened restaurants at Lake Murray, Beavers Bend, Quartz Mountain, Robbers Cave, Sequoyah, and Roman Nose."

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Friday that the state has filed suit against Swadley's Foggy Bottom Kitchen. [Image provided]

The statement expressed pride in Swadley's employees and lament.

"Swadley’s leadership team is disappointed by the recent decision to terminate its contract, and heartbroken for the hundreds of employees whose livelihoods are directly impacted.”

The House's 15-member, bipartisan Special Investigative Committee will review the circumstances surrounding the contract and the use of public resources. 

The meetings will be public except for those in which whistleblowers wish to speak to lawmakers privately, said Rep. Ryan Martinez, R-Edmond, who chairs the committee. On Friday, he called Winchester's resignation a positive first step.

"The former director will still be called to testify before our committee, and we look forward to full cooperation from him, the executive branch and all other parties that will be receiving requests for testimony and documents," Martinez said.

The legislative hearings are set to start in May.