FBI investigating after Oklahoma education funds misspent

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The FBI is investigating the misspending of federal funds meant to help Oklahoma children learn at home during the pandemic, law enforcement sources confirmed Thursday.

A scathing state audit in June blamed Ryan Walters, now state schools superintendent, for failures that resulted in the misspending of Bridge the Gap funds.

Those funds were part of a $39.9 million Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER, grant.

“We are not aware of any investigation involving Superintendent Walters," his chief adviser, Matt Langston, said Thursday. "The vendor for GEER should be held accountable for the program and any misspent funds.”

Oklahoma's new attorney general in January blamed "state actors" for the misspending and dropped a lawsuit against the out-of-state vendor involved in the program.

"My office will continue engaging with various state and federal agencies to investigate this egregious misuse of tax dollars," Attorney General Gentner Drummond said then.

More: AG looking at state officials in his investigation of pandemic relief funds

Why the FBI is investigating

Sources confirmed that the FBI is one of those federal agencies after online news site NonDoc reported Tuesday that FBI agents were investigating the GEER grant. The sources would not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The FBI would not confirm its agents are investigating.

However, a public affairs specialist did say the FBI has the authority "to investigate allegations of federal funds being misused, with consideration to all applicable criminal statutes."

More: Oklahoma 'dropped the ball' in handling millions in pandemic relief funds, according to state audit

"It is then up to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to decide whether a case will be prosecuted," the specialist, Kayla McCleery, said.

The governor's office said it "has not received any subpoenas, nor have we been contacted by the FBI regarding this matter."

Drummond's office said it does not typically confirm or deny the existence of criminal investigations.

State Rep. Mark McBride, chairman of the House education budget committee, said he has "heard that there's something going on."

"If there is, I'm sure that the FBI will expose any wrongdoing," the legislator said.

Audit revealed thousands in misspent funds for Bridge the Gap program

The federal government already has called for Oklahoma to return $652,720 in education funds parents spent on "unallowable" items.

The state audit determined the misspending in the Bridge the Gap program actually was much more. "We found that $1.7 million was spent on various non-educational items such as kitchen appliances, power tools, furniture and entertainment," the state auditor, Cindy Byrd, said in June.

“Proper system controls were offered by the digital wallet vendor to limit the families’ purchases to education-related items but those controls were declined by the individual placed in charge of the (Bridge the Gap) program," she said.

Read the audit: Full audit into education fending funds

The audit identified the executive director of a nonprofit, Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, as the individual who "directly participated" in the administration of the Bridge the Gap program.

Before taking office in January, Walters was executive director of that nonprofit. He also was Gov. Kevin Stitt's secretary of education.

Auditors reported they confirmed through interviews and emails that the education secretary gave "blanket approval" of all vendors on the ClassWallet system.

That approval applied to all items the vendors offered on the system, according to the audit.

Auditors reported officials failed to review "any purchasing reports which would have alerted the State to the unallowable and questionable purchases."

Walters, a Republican, has become a polarizing figure in the state since taking office in January because of his far-right brand of politics.

Contributing: Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: FBI investigating misspending in Oklahoma's Bridge the Gap program