Thank goodness for independent media! Oklahoma Watch published an investigative report that detailed a secret slush fund that supplements the salary of the state Secretary of Education.

(This story was produced in partnership with the Oklahoma nonprofit newsroom The Frontier.)

Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed legislation that would have required cabinet members to file public reports to disclose their finances.

If Stitt had signed the bill last month, Oklahomans would learn that Secretary of Education Ryan Walters makes at least $120,000 a year as executive director of a nonprofit organization that keeps its donors secret. Walters is also paid about $40,000 a year by the state, according to state payroll data.

The nonprofit, Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, has refused to disclose its largest donors.

But a joint investigation by The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch has found that much of the organization’s funds come from national school privatization and charter school expansion advocates, including the Walton Family Foundation and an education group founded by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch.

As Secretary of Education, Walters serves as Stitt’s top advisor on public education policy and is the governor’s liaison for dozens of state boards and programs.

Walters’ outside employment with a nonprofit funded by advocacy groups could be a conflict of interest, said Delaney Marsco, senior attorney for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group that focuses on government transparency and accountability.

“If you are responsible for making decisions in a certain area of the government and you are being paid by an outside organization that has an interest in that, that absolutely can be a conflict of interest,” Marsco said. “If you are a public servant, your duty is to the public, and anything that kind of calls that into question, even raises the appearance of a conflict of interest, is a problem.”

Under Walters’ leadership, Every Kid Counts Oklahoma was the public face of Stitt’s program that distributed $1,500 grants to families in 2020 funded with $8 million in federal coronavirus relief money. The money was intended to buy tutoring and educational supplies. But a lack of safeguards allowed parents to use some of the funds to buy TVs, gaming consoles and home appliances, an investigation by Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier found. Emails and other recordsshow that Walters helped secure the no-bid contract with a Florida company to distribute the money. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has opened an audit into how the state used those funds.

Walters, who declined multiple interview requests, is now running for state superintendent, an elected position overseeing the state Department of Education and a budget of over $3 billion. Unlike in federal elections, candidates for state office in Oklahoma are not required to fill out financial disclosures until after they are elected.

Please open the link and read on.