Every time another layer is peeled off the unfolding saga of the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce embezzlement case, those going through the records hope they might see a light at the end of the tunnel. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Since January 2012, someone with access to chamber funds made 780 cash withdrawals from ATMs at the Hard Rock in Tulsa, the Cherokee Nation’s Tahlequah casino, Tulsa banks and convenience stores and other ATMs, for a staggering total of nearly $270,000. That’s not even counting purchases made at places like Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, various restaurants and bars, and convenience stores.
In terms of total dollars, this will be one of the largest embezzlement scams in local history. And if the chatter on social media and through emails and phone calls to the Daily Press are any indication, the rage is escalating with each new revelation.
Chamber board members aren’t saying much, because an OSBI probe is ongoing. Though they’re making documents available to the Press, they’re throwing up a few roadblocks, some of which may be necessary. But asking an entity to pay 25 cents a page for copies of records to which the local public should have easy access is a little hard to swallow – especially when the chamber owes money to the entity being charged.
Board President Stan Young last week made a comment to FOX23 – probably out of sheer frustration – that openly suggested a culprit. No official blame has been assigned by investigators, but board members, both past and present, are talking off the record in various forums, and they’re pointing fingers.
The board’s first official act was to fire Tourism Director Kate Kelly, who appears to be the whistle-blower. The public will likely never know exactly why her employment was terminated, because that information is protected under privacy laws. But thus far, no evidence has surfaced to suggest she ever had access to any funds. Sources say board members believe Kelly suspected something was rotten at the chamber several months before she finally told a tourism board member, and their displeasure at her delay prompted their action. But if that’s the case, she is not the only one who should be released from her official position.
A number of folks in the business community are murmuring that the chamber should start with a clean slate, with all new board members and employees. They find it hard to believe this many intelligent, well-meaning local leaders could be fooled to this degree. Getting anyone to say that openly is another matter. Most board members are prominent people, with deep ties to the community – including past and present service on other boards. Some are embarrassed, and rightly so; others appear to be defiant. Either way, the widespread hope is that they – and those who follow them – have learned an important lesson about blind trust.
Whom they hire as their next director will be telling. One board member suggested they eliminate the tourism post and pay the next director a little more, which sounds like a good idea. The new director should be able to prove he or she has at least a bachelor’s degree in business or a related field, as well as several years’ experience. It might also be wise to pick a candidate who wasn’t born and raised here, to stave off the stench of the “good ol’ boy” network. And above all, the director should be required to live in Cherokee County as long as he or she holds the job.
Certain factions are jockeying for position, and someone with prior chamber affiliation will likely be held up as an ideal candidate. Succumbing to that pressure would be a colossal mistake on part of board members, and they can’t afford another one of those. Even if they keep their seats, the next director should be completely free from the taint of this scandal. Only then can the chamber begin to rebuild – an undertaking that will take lots of time and talent, and a spotless record for the person at its helm.