By Rep. Bobby Cleveland
The House Special Investigation Committee had a guest in to answer some questions on Dec. 19, and the responses and her testimony were eye-opening, to say the least.
Former Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) Chief Operating Officer Deborah Nichols answered more than two hours’ worth of questions Tuesday. Prior to her time at OSDH, Nichols was the chief executive officer for an insurance company. It was clear during her House testimony that her business experience proved very beneficial.
During the committee meeting, she spoke candidly about her experience at OSDH, and what she felt were red flags for the agency’s financial situation.
Nichols said she realized in early 2016 that things may not have been totally upright at OSDH because projects were cancelled last-minute because the agency didn’t have the money it thought it did. Further, she talked about seeing and hearing phrases like “payroll not posted,” something she had never experienced during her years in the private sector.
She said she tried to raise red flags repeatedly and that she felt like she was sitting on a “financial time bomb.” When she raised concerns to people above her, Nichols said she was frequently met with comments dismissing her findings. People would say things like, “You just don’t understand how things work in the government.”
All of that is extraordinarily frustrating and should be looked into. The thing that shocked me most, though, was Ms. Nichols’ insight into general mismanagement.
The former COO talked about her frustrations with the Office of Management & Enterprise Services, or OMES, saying the agency didn’t have any vested interest to control information technology (IT) costs at the project level. She spoke about how IT costs ballooned to more than $100 million between Fiscal Year 2013 and current day. Now I’m the first to admit I don’t know much about IT, but I’m fairly sure we could fly a rocket to the moon for that price.
Nichols is not the only agency staffer I’ve heard raise concerns about IT costs. In fact, I’ve had several people from other agencies tell me the same thing. It begs the question: If we created OMES to consolidate IT functions and save the state money, why aren’t we seeing results? And why has spending swollen so much in recent years?
The testimony from OSDH staffers will be crucial for our House Special Investigation Committee. We can hear from agency heads all day long, but we need to listen to employees of those agencies too. I, for one, learned a whole lot from hearing Ms. Nichols’ testimony, and I bet other lawmakers did as well.
Going forward, the committee will continue to seek documents pertaining to OSDH’s mismanagement of more than $30 million. I’m on a mission to find answers. These are your taxpayer dollars, and you deserve to know exactly how this fiscal crisis occurred – and how we can prevent it in the future.
Rep. Bobby Cleveland represents House District 20. He can be reached at 405-557-7308 or at Bob.Cleveland@okhouse.gov.