Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt accepted the resignation of embattled Tourism Director Jerry Winchester Friday and announced the state is filing suit against Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen after the state cut ties with the restaurant company Monday.
Lawmakers called on Winchester to resign earlier this week amid fallout of the state’s deal with Swadley’s to operate restaurants at state parks.
The Oklahoma County District Attorney, David Prater this month called in the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the State Auditor & Inspector to review the company’s spending. Prater alleged Swadley’s overcharged the state by millions of dollars for renovations and operations of the park restaurants.
“I am confident that the current audits ill reveal that the department has been acting in the best interests of the state and we will fully cooperate to ensure a swift resolution," Winchester wrote in his resignation letter Friday. “I don’t want my continued involvement ot overshadow the great accomplishments that have been achieved these past three years.
“We are going to continue to lead this agency with humility, clarity and courage,” said Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, who will be taking on an “even more involved role, with the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation following the ouster of Winchester.
“We're not going to play politics with this,” Pinnell said. “We’re going to make sure that we have the courage to make the decision and make the changes necessary to make our tourism industry in Oklahoma, as the governor said, top 10.”
Both Pinnell and Stitt left Friday’s news conference without taking a question from reporters, citing ongoing litigation.
Pinnell publicly supported the Swadley’s contract to operate state park restaurants, which included a guarantee to pay for the restaurants’ operational costs plus monthly management fees per location.
A legislative oversight committee found Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen charged the state more than $16 million in the first 21 months of the contract. The ODTR canceled the contract on Monday.
Pinnell and Winchester both appeared in Swadley’s online commercials for Foggy Bottom Kitchens, and one of Swadley’s staff recruitment videos.
Pinnell has denied multiple requests for comment from News 9 in the past month.
The state of Oklahoma filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Swadley’s on Friday, as well. Private attorneys Randall Calvert and Andrew Davis of the Calvert Law Firm in Oklahoma City are representing the state.
The ODTR did not contact the Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor’s Office to represent the state in the case. “They hired outside counsel instead without consulting us,” said AGO spokesperson Rachel Roberts.
A spokesperson for Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen issued a statement attributed to the company on Friday. “Swadley’s is proud of the work it has done in Oklahoma’s beautiful state parks.”
The statement goes on to say “immense challenges” such as the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain shortages increased costs of labor and materials. “Swadley’s is proud of the hard work of our employees, which brought the amenities at these state parks in line with the breathtaking natural beauty our great state has to offer.”
Nearly 300 employees were laid off as a result of the state terminating the Swadley’s contract.
At Friday’s news conference, Stitt made a point of distancing himself from the company’s owner, Brent Swadley.
“I do not have any sort of relationship with Brent Swadley. I don’t know Brent Swadley. I have no involvement in this contract,” Stitt said.
The comment was likely in response to reports that Swadley alluded to having a relationship with Stitt to an inspector with the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal.
“This is bigger than you and there are more politics at play here than you could ever understand,” Swadley was quoted as saying in a 2020 OSFM report which flagged safety issues. “Let me tell you what happened here and what got this thing going. Governor Stitt reached out to me to put my restaurants in his state parks.”
The newly renovated and now-empty restaurant spaces at state parks are ready to be filled, Stitt said.
“Those restaurants are move in ready, and we are excited to get them reopened,” he said.