In February of 2008, about a year and a half after I moved to Oklahoma with my family, I learned about the infamous “birthday fund” of our state superintendent. Sandy Garrett held the elected position of Oklahoma state superintendent of schools for twenty years, from 1991 to 2011. Doug Taylor, the late superintendent of Gage Public Schools, told me how school superintendents in Oklahoma were sent an annual letter each year from the state superintendent’s office asking for contributions to her “birthday fund.” According to Doug, each letter provided a specific amount of money the superintendent asked and expected the recipient to contribute from his/her personal bank account to this “birthday fund.” It was Doug’s impression these funds were used primarily for re-election expenses of the state superintendent. Keep in mind we’re not talking ancient history, here. This was 2008, just four years ago.

Coming as I do from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where our honor code is extremely important, and from the U.S. Air Force were integrity is vital, I immediately thought, “Where is the whistle blower who will take this story to the mainstream media?” How has a situation like this been allowed to continue in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” when public officials are supposedly subjected to thorough scrutiny by the media? Surely someone would step forward and speak out? Corrupt behavior which was well known by all 500+ school superintendents in Oklahoma couldn’t continue to be “overlooked” by so many well intentioned, honest public servants, could it?

'whistleblower' photo (c) 2008, EFF - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As I visited with other Oklahoma school superintendents in later months and years, however, the answer I heard from all of them was the same: No sane Oklahoma superintendent would “go public” with this story. Each one was scared of Sandy Garrett and what she would do to their school district and to them personally if they dared report on “her birthday fund.” Doug Taylor told me school superintendents in Oklahoma widely believed if they did NOT contribute “the specified amount” to the state superintendent’s birthday fund each year, their district would be “blacklisted” by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Former employees of the Oklahoma SDE have confirmed to me this was indeed accurate: School districts were put on a “black list” which (for different reasons) did not meet with the former state superintendent’s approval. Once a district was placed on this list, they were not considered for different grant opportunities which the department had authority to administer.

In 2010, Janet Barresi was elected Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction. She took office in January of 2011. I wondered if this “changing of the guard” in the Oklahoma State Department of Education would result in an inquiry about Sandy Garrett’s “birthday fund,” and today’s headline by Megan Rolland in “The Daily Oklahoman” reveals that inquiries into financial corruption by Oklahoma State Department of Education officials have finally been promulgated.

According to the article, “Oklahoma Education Department spent $2.3 million through slush fund, audit claims:”

The [Oklahoma] state Education Department used at least two undisclosed bank accounts as a slush fund for drinks, entertainment, travel and more at state education conferences, spending $2.3 million over the past 10 years, according to an investigative state audit released Wednesday. “These off-book and unauthorized accounts allowed (Education Department) officials to pay, at a single event, $2,600 for 85 bottles of wine and 3 kegs of beer and $5,700 for food items including a ‘chocolate fountain,’ ‘Maryland crab cakes,’ ‘mini beef wellingtons,’ and ‘smoked salmon mousse in a puff pastry,’ without following any of the requirements normally associated with government expenditures,” the report from the state Auditor and Inspector’s Office shows.

The accounts were set up in the name of the nonprofit Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission, which was established in 1957. According to the audit, Education Department officials acted on behalf of the Oklahoma Curriculum Improvement Commission when they solicited payments from vendors or companies attending education conferences hosted by the department.

Those payments were then used to pay for the annual conference hosted by then-State Superintendent Sandy Garrett, the audit states.
The funds were hidden not only from the state Auditor’s Office, but also from members of the nonprofit, according to the audit.

This article barely reveals the tip of the iceberg, however. The full, 46 page “Oklahoma State Department of Education Supplemental Investigative Report from March 7, 2012” is available as a PDF file, linked from the NewsOK article. I read most of the report tonight. Unfortunately it was scanned as an image, so it’s not text searchable, and text cannot be readily copied and pasted. Here are a few items which stood out for me personally in the report which weren’t mentioned in Megan Rolland’s article today.

1. One of the bank accounts utilized by Oklahoma SDE officials through OCIC as a passthrough organization supported the state superintendent’s annual “Leadership Conference.” The second account supported the annual “Encyclo-Media Conference,” which (until this year) was traditionally held in the fall in September. I had been confused as to why the Encyclo-Media Conference wasn’t held in 2011 and was officially combined this year with the February Oklahoma Technology Administrator’s (OTA) conference. This report provides an explanation for this change: Funds for the conference were likely in limbo since auditors started this investigation in the summer of 2011 and it was ongoing throughout the fall.

2. I actually attended at least one of the events for which receipts are included in the full report. This receipt from July of 2007 is on page 13 of the report, and I was there. It’s a little weird to have a personal connection like this to the report and this entire situation. I know there are hundreds of other folks in Oklahoma like me. These were big events.

Receipt from page 13 of http:__bit.ly_ArELUM

This situation involves LARGE amounts of money. Consider this graph from page 27 of the full report. It shows in green the funds reported to the board of OCIC, and in red the actual funds received by the OKSDE employees operating bank accounts for the State Department of Education in the name of OCIC.

Graph from page 27 of the report on: http:__bit.ly_ArELUM

Another weird personal connection is I just attended a workshop offered by OCIC at the end of January this year, a few weeks ago. (See part 1 and part 2 of my notes for details.) I hadn’t heard of this organization before that conference, which featured a speaker from the Marzano Research Lab discussing the transition to Common Core State Standards.

3. I know several of the people mentioned by name in this report, and I’m wondering where this investigation will go and who will be charged with what. Again I come back to the idea and image of whistleblowing. According to the English WikiPedia, a “whistleblower” is:

…a person who tells the public or someone in authority about alleged dishonest or illegal activities (misconduct) occurring in a government department, a public or private organization, or a company. The alleged misconduct may be classified in many ways; for example, a violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption. Whistleblowers may make their allegations internally (for example, to other people within the accused organization) or externally (to regulators, law enforcement agencies, to the media or to groups concerned with the issues).

I’ll be curious to learn if there was a “whistleblower” in this case (or series of cases) and where the buck will stop. The financial audit report of OCIC (see pages 27-28 for details) suggests Oklahoma SDE officials were intentionally underreporting the actual bank account balances of the organization to the board.

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) is also implicated in this report, because in July 2009 (see pages 30-31 of the report under Finding #7) it become the new “partner” organization for the Oklahoma SDE instead of OCIC. The connections and implications here are far and wide in Oklahoma. I know several of the people interviewed for this investigative report personally. This entire situation is a big mess. But it’s a big mess that needed to be exposed to the light of public scrutiny FOR YEARS, and as a citizen I’m glad it finally has. We don’t know where the investigation and, I would guess, criminal charges related to these sustained activities over a large number of years will go, but hopefully those ultimately responsible will be brought to justice and face legal consequences. I have a strong sense of justice, and I hope justice is upheld in this situation.

There are many lessons to learn from this situation and it’s too early to identify all of them now. One of the big ones has to be, “What should individuals do when they find themselves inside an organization where dishonest and illegal activities are being conducted on a sustained basis with the blessing of top officials?” Put another way, “When should someone decide to speak out as a whistleblower, or resign as a conscientious objector to immoral acts?” Those are very important ethical questions, and ones which I’ve privately considered for years since I first heard about “the birthday fund.”

These are the final five bullet points included on page 34 of the report, under the title “Conclusions.”

Information developed during our interviews with SDE officials, as well as records we reviewed indicated OSDE officials were:

  • Soliciting funds for conferences as part of their OSDE duties.
  • Recording, accounting for and depositing those funds into various unofficial “private” accounts
  • Two of the “private” accounts held under the name of OCIC had not been disclosed to the OCIC board of directors.
  • The OCIC operating account appeared to have also been used for purposes more aligned with OSDE than OCIC.
  • The use of the unofficial “private” accounts allowed OSDE officials to spend money with no governmental oversight.

In addition to being able to issue payments with no governmental oversight, the accounts may have also been used to avoid public scrutiny.

The issues of “who is responsible” and “where the buck stops” are not new. The issue of personal responsibility for immoral actions was central to the cases heard during the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. More recently, the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse cases brought up the same issue. Did you notice Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush weren’t found responsible? I wonder who will remain “insulated” from blame in this situation with our Oklahoma State Department of Education? How “high” and how “low” will the inquiry go in finding individuals culpable? Who will be able to plead, “I was just following orders?” It’s a familiar refrain in a culture where immoral behavior has been normalized.

You may think a comparison to Nuremberg or Abu Ghraib is inappropriate in this case, but I think the issues of “compliant behavior within a culture where immortality became defined as normal” are absolutely congruent. It is vital we discuss and study ethics so we can prepare ourselves as well as others to make moral decisions when faced with circumstances which challenge our integrity. On page 12 of this report we read:

One official told us she did not feel like soliciting donations and coordinating the Leadership conference was optional, but that it was a part of her “other duties as assigned” as an OSDE employee.

You can bet this situation with the Oklahoma State Department of Education is going to become a “case study” in more than one ethics textbook in the years to come.

Kudos to Janet Barresi, former and current employees of the Oklahoma SDE who have spoken out on these chapters of our state history, and others involved in these ongoing investigations. You can bet we haven’t read the last headline on these subjects.

Other related articles:
Former state Superintendent Sandy Garrett’s e-mails missing (NewsOK, 4 Feb 2011)
Education Department Audit Reveals Disturbing Use Of Funds (News9, 7 Mar 2012)

NOTE: The text of the original article by Megan Rolland, quoted and linked in this post, has already been updated and revised as of 12:25 CST 3/8/2011 to include a quotation from Sandy Garrett and other additional information.

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  • Phoenixrsn2

    If you have this enormous amount of integrity you write of why did YOU not blow the whistle?

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    In regard to “the birthday fund” and why I didn’t write about this previously or contact mainstream media sources: I’d say my top reasons were fear, intimidation, a desire to keep my own job with AT&T at the time, and a lack of direct “smoking gun” evidence. (I didn’t possess a copy of one of those letters, I never received one because I wasn’t a school superintendent in our state.)

    This latest report and investigation has uncovered considerable evidence which is now in the public record. I hope it will encourage others to step forward and speak out.

    I have shared what I know and who told me about it here. That is all of “this story” I have to tell. There are many other perspectives which others can and hopefully will share in the days to come.

  • Jane Citizen

    These separate fund-raising efforts have nothing to do with each other, but I think you know that.  The fact  that you maliciously put the two together doesn’t support your claim to have an honor code, but it does go with your ongoing efforts to feather your bed with the current administration.  I’m sure the few people who came to DDS Barresi’s summer conference — which she also paid by raising private funds — really enjoyed your presentations:
    July 201107-08 Simple Ideas for Powerful Sharing – Oklahoma State Department of Education Innovations 2011 Conference (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)07-08 Support STEM Skills with Scratch – Oklahoma State Department of Education Innovations 2011 Conference (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)07-08 Leading Schools with Digital Vision in a Bubblesheet World – Oklahoma State Department of Education Innovations 2011 Conference (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    Jane Citizen: Both of the fundraising situations described in this post have everything to do with each other. They were orchestrated by the same individual and were not done in honest ways. I’m “reporting the news” here, not “maliciously putting things together.”

    In response to your statement about “feathering my bed:” I presented those sessions at the leadership conference last year for free. I didn’t receive anything to present them and I certainly didn’t pay anything. I was honored to be invited. In past conferences, only SDE staff were permitted to present… I asked if I could present and was told no. All the presentations I share are listed on my public handouts wiki, linked at the top of this site/my blog. This is not a secret, and I’m not sure how it constitutes “bed feathering.”
    http://wiki.wesfryer.com

    You may not have read many other posts on my blog about our current administration, but if you do you’ll find I’m critical of some things and positive about others.
    http://wfryer.wpengine.com/?s=barresi

    See my February 7th post, “Anywhere, Anytime Learning by Janet Barresi” from the OTA/EncycloMedia conference:
    http://wfryer.wpengine.com/2012/02/07/anywhere-anytime-learning-by-janet-barresi-otaem12/

    Also see my February 23rd post, “Springer & Monson to Barresi: You Don’t Have the Right to Take Over Our Public Schools in Oklahoma.”
    http://wfryer.wpengine.com/2012/02/23/springer-monson-to-barresi-you-dont-have-the-right-to-take-over-our-public-schools-in-oklahoma/

    I certainly hope I’ll be invited to present at leadership again this summer, but I don’t know if I will or not. I still need to post about my experiences a couple weeks ago testifying at the public hearing for rules governing the new Oklahoma virtual school law, and I am definitely not supportive of the way this is going.

    I definitely think some of the things Superintendent Barresi has done are positive, but I am critical of others. I am not “pro-this-person-no-matter-what-he/she-ever-does.” I do my best to analyze situations on a case by case basis.

  • Jane Citizen

    I appreciate that you’re critical; I appreciate all who are.  Sorry I was catty but that’s not reporting the news.  And, it just flew all over me after Supt. Garrett had done SO much for technology in schools, and for schools, and for professional development – which as you know – costs money and we had NO state money for it.  It’s just sad doing the best you can for 20 years and this is how it ends up.  But, take care!  And, keep up the good work.

  • Jane Citizen

    I appreciate that you’re critical; I appreciate all who are.  Sorry I was catty but that’s not reporting the news.  And, it just flew all over me after Supt. Garrett had done SO much for technology in schools, and for schools, and for professional development – which as you know – costs money and we had NO state money for it.  It’s just sad doing the best you can for 20 years and this is how it ends up.  But, take care!  And, keep up the good work.

  • Politicians are all the same

    Kudos for Janet Barresi?  She broke the law when she had 3 people working at the state department of education for 3 months who while acting as state employees, were paid with private funds.  What happened to her and those employees?  Nothing!!  

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