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Tarps are being placed over the Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen signs at Oklahoma’s state parks. And those $120,000 mineshafts to nowhere outside some of the locations, will go away like Swadley’s gold rush attitude toward state government.

It will all be gone, but we will remember how Oklahoma’s Republican leadership ripped off the state’s citizens to give a prominent donor the sweetest of sweetheart deals. Most importantly, this grift is only a thing of the past because good people came forward as whistleblowers and good journalists started digging deep. This is the only reason the state canceled its contract with Swadley’s – everyone involved got caught with their hands in the sauce vat.

For Oklahomans with Chrome widgets that ignore mentions of Swadley’s, corruption, self-dealing, state parks and barbecue, here’s the story.

OPINION by George Lang

According to reporting by The Frontier’s Reese Gorman, Brianna Bailey, and Kayla Branch and, also, Dave Cathey at The Oklahoman, Swadley’s was offered a sole-bid contract to operate six restaurants at Oklahoma State Parks. Two months before bids were requested, the whistleblower, who was tasked with writing Swadley’s proposal, took a tour of park facilities with owner Brent Swadley, state Department of Tourism Executive Director Jerry Winchester and Assistant Director Gino DeMarco, who organized the junket and disorganized the state’s COVID response as PPE czar during the pandemic.

Swadley’s then took over food concessions at state parks. The cooked meat company proceeded to charge the state for its management costs and elective capital improvements like $48,000 for a mural and around $51,346 apiece for smokers retailing for around $29,000, according to The Oklahoman. And if the stores were not profitable, the contract stipulated, Swadley’s was guaranteed a seven-figure payment for losing money. 

And because Swadley’s had to keep the eateries open at all times for customers in remote areas where public use of such parks can be extremely seasonal, the company paid dishwashers $20 an hour to work. Sometimes, that involved just showing up to a nearly empty restaurant during off-season. 

All told, Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen restaurants have cost the state $16.7 million since the Department of Tourism made the deal. This was corporate welfare of the first order and crony capitalism at its worst. This was the Shinkansen of gravy trains, a chance for religious conservative idealogues who complain about “entitlements” and “handouts” to stick their entitled hands out. 

State Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City, went medieval on the Department of Tourism’s leadership in a press conference this week. 

“It really befuddles me that Executive Director Jerry Winchester is still sitting in that chair acting as though this didn’t happen on his watch, as though this didn’t happen under Stitt’s administration, as though he wasn’t the one that approved these types of contracts,” Walke said. “I mean, my God, they had a burger named after him. If his name isn’t written all over this corruption, I don’t know what is.”

In a letter from the state Department of Tourism sent Monday to Swadley’s corporate offices and obtained by The Frontier and The Oklahoman, it sounds like the department is starting to see how things should operate.

“Any costs incurred by FBK (Foggy Bottom Kitchen) after the receipt of this letter, are the sole responsibility of Swadley’s and Department [sic] shall not be responsible for such costs,” the letter reads. 

Winchester and DeMarco would do well to put that verbiage into future contracts. In the meantime, visitors to Roman Nose State Park will not get any mid-level barbecue at the lodge, but when driving on State Highway 3 past Piedmont, they can see Swadley Ranch, an imposing $2 million property paid for with what I’m certain the Swadleys say is the result of hard work and good Christian ethics. 

George Lang is the professional opinion columnist for Oklahoma City Free Press. 

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Last Updated April 27, 2022, 5:50 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor