MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 11, 2013

State officials sued over Youth Expo funding


Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma lawmaker is suing Gov. Mary Fallin and other state officials demanding that they recover more than $2 million in state tax dollars given to a private, nonprofit livestock show in what the lawmaker says was an "informal" deal that was never approved by the Legislature.

Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, filed the lawsuit more than two months after he hand-delivered letters to Fallin and the other officials demanding that they recover the money. Reynolds' attorney, Andrew Karim, said Thursday that Reynolds filed the lawsuit after he received no response to his letter, which was signed by 146 Oklahoma taxpayers, including Reynolds.

"When the demand letter went out and nothing was done after a period of time, it's up to the taxpayers to assume the position of the state and seek to recover the money that was unlawfully paid out of the state treasury," Karim said.

The letters were delivered on Oct. 31 to the offices of 15 elected and appointed state officials, including legislative leaders and statewide officials, who were involved in the appropriation and distribution of state money to the Youth Expo.

"They determined not to even contact us to tell us if they were or weren't going to do anything," Reynolds said.

The lawsuit is the second Reynolds has filed challenging the Youth Expo money and is part of an effort by Reynolds and other conservative lawmakers to challenge what they claim is the inappropriate allocation of state dollars to private entities. Reynolds and Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, filed a separate lawsuit in September that alleges allocations to the Youth Expo are unconstitutional.

The most recent lawsuit, filed in Oklahoma County District Court on Tuesday, demands that the officials recover $2 million allocated to the Youth Expo in August. It also demands recovery of $167,750 in state tax dollars that was allocated to the organization in 2010 and a $175,000 allocation in 2011.

The demand letters and lawsuit were filed under so-called "qui tam" guidelines that allow private citizens to initiate legal action against a person or company that allegedly violates the law in connection with a government contract.

The lawsuit alleges that Fallin and legislative leaders authorized the Youth Expo allocation as part of a "non-public, informal agreement among themselves" in conjunction with a contract between the Youth Expo and the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The lawsuit alleges the allocation was never authorized by the Legislature.

"At no time relevant herein did the Oklahoma Legislature make an appropriation of public monies for Youth Expo," it states. "Neither did the Legislature specifically make Youth Expo the object of any appropriation."

The lawsuit states that state tax dollars are constitutionally dedicated for public purposes, not private entities.

"The taxes levied and collected during the times relevant herein were collected for public purposes and not for the private purposes of Youth Expo," the lawsuit states.

Spokespersons for Fallin did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment, but they have indicated in the past that she supports the Youth Expo appropriation and that the organization's activities support the mission of the Agriculture Department.

Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese has said the allocation was made in accordance with guidelines that authorize a public-private partnership between the state and private entities to help farmers and ranchers promote agriculture-related endeavors.

The Youth Expo's website states it is the largest youth event in the state. The livestock show is scheduled for March 16-26.