They were set up to help your local governments serve you better, but critics say they're being misused by state lawmakers to hide pork-barrel spending. They're the most powerful government agencies you've never heard of. News On 6 anchor Terry Hood reports they're known by many different names, sub-state planning districts or economic development districts, but they call themselves Councils of Government, or COGs.
Oklahoma has eleven different COGs, each known by its own acronym. First authorized by Congress four decades ago, COGS help towns and cities pool their resources to improve everything from fire protection to care for the elderly, but critics say over the years the COGs have been hijacked by state lawmakers doling out pork-barrel spending.
"It was just too perfect. It was the perfect case to create plausible deniability,â€ said Steve Anderson of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
Anderson is a CPA who works with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a non-profit group that monitors government spending.
He says the amount of money funneled through the COGs runs into the millions every year.
"It all adds up. You get a few $15-million items and the next thing you know you've got real money,â€ Anderson said.
By law, the legislature is supposed to spend your tax dollars with appropriations bills, making it relatively easy to track where the money goes, but some lawmakers use the COGs to funnel pork barrel money to their districts, and it's almost impossible to track. It's called "pass through" money.
Former Hartshorne representative Mike Mass pleaded guilty to using this system to set up his own kickbacks, in an ongoing federal investigation.
It's taken two months, but The News On 6 has tracked down the names of all state lawmakers who've used this system over the last five years. We've found millions in taxpayer dollars spent in all kinds of questionable ways, and we've also discovered that the process is illegal.
It violates a 1987 opinion from the attorney general, which carries the weight of law. Now, the legislature is considering a plan that would distribute this money based on a formula, not backroom wheeling and dealing.
"That actually fixes the problem,â€ said Anderson. â€œThat completely removes the legislators, which is why it may not pass."
The News On 6 Investigates is still tracking down the details of the money trail. Look for more reports on that, in the coming weeks.
Watch the video: Critics Say State Lawmakers Use COGs To Hide Pork-Barrel Spending
The following documents are four yearsâ€™ worth of â€œpass throughâ€ money records from ACOG, the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments. These records are good examples of how state lawmakers sent money through the COGs for items in their home districts, even though the particular COG was a great distance away from their home district. ACOG 2002-2003ACOG 2003-2004ACOG 2004-2005ACOG 2005-2006
Case in point, former State Senator Stratton Taylor from Claremore sent money through ACOG, based in Oklahoma City, for the new equestrian center at Rogers State University, which is located near Oologah in Rogers County.Click here for a map of Oklahoma Council of Governments