Oklahoma parks director resigns, restaurant operator sued

Apr 29, 2022, 3:00 PM | Updated: 3:11 pm

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The embattled director of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department resigned Friday and the state filed a lawsuit against the operator of six state park restaurants.

The actions come amid investigations by state lawmakers and the state auditor into a multimillion-dollar contract between the parks department and Swadley’s Bar-B-Q to renovate and rebrand restaurants at six parks under the name Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen. The state announced it was ending that contract on Monday.

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the resignation of department parks director Jerry Winchester.

“We’re committed to getting to the bottom of this,” Stitt said. “There are a lot of different investigations going on right now and I think we can all agree that the most important things are protecting the taxpayers and shining a light on any corruption or bad actors.”

Winchester said in his resignation letter that he was stepping down immediately.

“I regret that it is in the best interest of the department” to resign, Winchester wrote. “I am confident that the current audits will reveal that the department has been acting in the best interest of the state and we will fully cooperate to ensure a swift resolution.”

The lawsuit, filed Friday, alleges breach of agreement and calls for Swadley’s to provide its financial information regarding the restaurants’ operations.

Swadley’s said in a statement that the extent of neglect at the restaurants was more than expected and was costly.

“Swadley’s is proud of the work it has done in Oklahoma’s beautiful state parks,” it said. “Despite these immense challenges, Swadley’s completed and opened restaurants at” the six parks.

The March 2020 contract allows Swadley’s to have the state subsidize more than $2 million in operational losses at the park restaurants.

The state’s tourism department said Monday the contract was terminated due to “suspected fraudulent activity.”

State House Speaker Charles McCall on Thursday announced a special committee investigation of parks and tourism department contracts to be chaired by Rep. Ryan Martinez.

“This is a positive first step,” Martinez said in a statement Friday.

“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.

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Oklahoma parks director resigns, restaurant operator sued