The new president of the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors stressed on Monday his desire to “move forward” as a criminal embezzlement investigation continues.

Northeastern State University President Dr. Steve Turner became the chamber president July 1 and addressed fellow board members and the city council during back-to-back meetings Monday evening.

Turner said the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is hoping to speak with any chamber member who was approached by a chamber employee or former employee and asked to pay his or her membership dues or sponsorship donations “in person.” Turner said the OSBI also wants to hear from members who might have been asked by a chamber employee or past employee to provide a loan to the entity. Those who were approached should call the OSBI at 800-522-8017.

Turner told the city council he is surrounded by “very smart, very good leaders” on the chamber board; but he admitted the positive has been overshadowed by the investigation.

Turner has proposed bylaw changes that would create a board member orientation and require members to sign a “statement of understanding, responsibility and engagement.” His proposed changes, if adopted, will also create a secretary’s position to keep records of meetings and other information, rather than leaving that responsibility with a paid employee of the chamber.

While board members may not have answers to many of the questions that have surfaced during the investigation, Turner said he expects the OSBI and state auditor will provide answers in the coming months.

“You have this issue of the community trust being violated,” Turner said. “Let’s not let that overshadow all the good work that’s going on. ... My energies are spent moving forward.”

During the city council meeting, a few members of the community told councilors they should demand accountability from the chamber, and some suggested a new chamber board should be put in place. Others defended the chamber board and the need for such an entity in Cherokee County. Acting chamber Executive Director Drew Haley also spoke up.

“The board that is there, they deeply regret what has happened, and they feel responsible to fix it,” Haley said.

He, like Turner, suggested a need not to “dwell on the past,” but to “move forward.”

During the chamber board meeting, members gave their OK to use existing chamber funds and portions of a line of credit to pay nearly $13,000 in outstanding bills to various businesses.

Two debts were turned over to collection, according to Treasurer Stephen Highers: A Dell laptop computer bill, and payments for an “old copier” that no longer works. Highers said the bills include some that are overdue. He said there are a few other debts the chamber likely owes, but he hasn’t received written invoices for those amounts.

A couple of loans provided by chamber members – totaling about $19,000, according to documents – were not included in the board’s decision Monday to pay outstanding debts.

Turner said the chamber’s line of credit is up to $56,000 over 12 months.

Paying off the debts, Turner said, is a “critical step” in fixing the issues that have surfaced within the chamber.

“We’ve all been hurt by what’s taken place,” Turner told the chamber board Monday.

Board members also voted to have Highers and attorney Angela Jones prepare a response to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which has received a request for unemployment compensation from former Tourism Director Kate Kelly.

jnewton@tahlequahdailypress.com

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