Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

June 17, 2014

OSBI joins Chamber of Commerce probe

Documents cite lapse of medical, dental insurance for tourism director as allegations

TAHLEQUAH — Agents with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation will assist the Tahlequah Police Department as officers look into the alleged misappropriation of funds within the local Chamber of Commerce.

Police Chief Nate King on Monday confirmed he requested the OSBI’s help after meeting with Chamber board members.

Chamber Executive Director David Moore resigned abruptly last Thursday evening via email. His phone was later disconnected and his Facebook page taken offline. Moore had been away from the Chamber office throughout the week, and employees there said he had called in sick.

Tourism Director Kate Kelly, who is on paid ad- ministrative leave, has de- clined comment.

Letters and minutes of a June 3 Tourism Council board meeting identify one allegation as a lapse of Kelly’s medical and dental insurance.

Tourism Board Chairwoman Amanda Pritchett on Monday provided the Daily Press with minutes of the board’s June 3 meeting. Board members voted to send letters to Chamber of Commerce Board President Stanley Young and Tahlequah City Attorney Park Medearis to reveal allegations “that the medical and dental insurance for the tourism director have lapsed,” minutes show.

In the letter, Pritchett said the tourism board “would like to request an official response from the Chamber board as to who made this decision and why.”

The board also voted to request copies of all Tourism Council invoices submitted to the city that relate to the hotel-motel tax collections from 2012 to May 2014. Four percent of that tax is remitted to the Chamber of Commerce for promotion of tourism, as part of an agreement dating back to the late 1980s. Recently, the city has sent about $95,000 per year to the Chamber for that purpose.

The board’s request was approved, though board member Donna Tinnin voted against the motion and Tonia Weavel abstained.

The board also decided to request an audit of the Tourism Council’s bank accounts from 2012 to 2014, with findings to be reported to the tourism board “as soon as possible.”

The tourism board also asked the Chamber board to turn over the Tourism Council’s bank statements “immediately.”

The letters to Young and Medearis were all dated June 5.

The Chamber of Commerce board, meanwhile, is set to meet Wednesday, June 18, at 5 p.m. to appoint an interim Chamber director; to discuss the establishment of new bank accounts; and to consider extending current board terms until July 1, 2015.

During a meeting Monday evening, members of the Tahlequah City Council chose to continue sending hotel-motel tax funds to the Chamber, but agreed they could reconsider and suspend the money if details surface that show the funds could be “in jeopardy,” as Medearis explained.

“If the city is in possession of confirmable information that would indicate those [tax dollars] are in jeopardy of being misused or improperly used, I think the city would have an obligation to technically breach the contract that it has with the Chamber,” Medearis said.

Medearis and Mayor Jason Nichols both said they had received no information as of Monday confirming misappropriation of funds related to the tax.

Anita Thompson, a Chamber of Commerce board vice president, addressed the council and confirmed board members met with local and state authorities Monday.

“They are currently investigating what we have going on there at the Chamber,” said Thompson. “We’re moving forward as a board, though. To be able to do that, it is critical for us to have, to continue to receive, the dollars from the tourism tax. In order to move forward, we’ve worked to develop a plan, and some of the things that are critical to that are making sure we have someone appointed as an interim director quickly, and making sure we review some of our policies and procedures to make sure we are able to continue operations going forward. As you know, it’s the height of tourism season here in Tahlequah, and we have to make sure that there continues to be someone to answer the phone, to answer questions, to direct our local visitors as they come in.”

Nichols, an ex-officio member of the Chamber board, told councilors he had refrained from attending Chamber meetings or engaging in conversations about the allegations.

“I think it’s important that you all handle that without interference or any overbearing presence by any member of this [city council] or myself,” Nichols told Chamber board members, “and I’m going to stick to that until you all tell me otherwise. We do have an item before [the council] to suspend the funds, if [councilors] see fit. I do know that there are bills that probably need to be paid, and the situation that led to some problems has been alleviated, at least in the short term.”

Nichols said the city has not yet provided last month’s collections to the Chamber, and said it would “be a while before we remit for this month.” He suggested the city has time to act if an investigation reveals it may be necessary.

jnewton@tahlequahdailypress.com

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