Few people in Oklahoma know the problem, or maybe better put, are willing to talk about the problem with the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) like attorney Gary Richardson. Gary had ran for Governor once as an Independent and has remained the most knowledgeable source for Turnpike information here in the state.
Gary had spoken before an activist group at a rally at the Capitol on the 16th of March and I asked him if I could interview him about that talk and other aspects of the Turnpike Authority.
STP: Gary, you ran for Governor a few years back on this very issue I believe.
Gary: I did indeed. At the event on the 16th I asked the crowd if anyone remembered my race for Governor and how I said the Turnpike was a scam on the state. About ten percent of the 300 attendees raised their hands. I then asked them to raise their hand if they actually believed me when I said it at the time and three people raised their hand. I asked how many believed it today and they all responded.
STP: Can you elaborate on the scam?
Gary: Because the taxpayers of Oklahoma have not being informed over the years about the Turnpike system at all or we have been intentionally lied to for over 60 years. Back in the sixties I had heard that the book of Proverbs was a book of wisdom so I recorded the entire book of Proverbs on cassette tapes and listened to them on my commute to and from work. Prov. 9:7 says : Thru knowledge shall the just be delivered. For around 15 years I've been attempting to educate the citizens of Oklahoma about the real truth of the Turnpike system.
For example, if a poll was taken today, even after my race for Governor wherein I talked all over the State about the scam, I would estimate that most probably 90% plus of Oklahomans still think that:
- The Turnpike is a State Agency
- That we, the State of Okla., make money from the Turnpike.
STP: Can you tell us about how the issue was received in the 2002 election?
Gary: At our first debate, which was conducted before OKC realtors, I presented my positions on the Turnpike. Brad Henry followed me and spoke about all the money we would lose should we do what I was suggesting, take the Turnpikes down and put the system under the ODOT (Oklahoma Department of Transportation). So here was an Oklahoma State Senator who either intentionally lied to these realtors or was in the dark about the Turnpike system. I learned in talking to him that he was "in the dark".
Oklahomans had already paid in excess of $100,000 for a big 8 CPA firm to do an analysis of the Oklahoma highway system and the study concluded that shutting down the OTA and transferring the roads to ODOT was best for the state and would be substantial savings to our state. But, I quickly learned that very few knew about the study having been done or about the results thereof. I, for example, met with the head of ODOT and he wasn't even aware of it. Seemingly it was just put on the book shelve to gather dust.
As I traveled the State and asked editors of Newspapers if the Turnpike was a State Agency, I only had one that knew that it wasn't. The others were somewhat shocked to learn that it wasn't.
I had 3 State Senators tell me that when they were elected and during their first term in office that they started looking into the Turnpike and were quickly told that if they wanted to have any effect in the Senate that they would look for something else to look into.
STP: So who does own the Turnpike?
Gary: On 4 or 5 occasions I was challenged when I spoke and said that there wasn't any way to find out who owned the Turnpike bonds…. that they, the legislators, had fixed it so that this information wasn't available. The 4 or 5 that challenged me by saying they could find out were all quite surprised to learn that they could not.
STP: And the media isn't aware of the fact that no one outside the inner loop can find out who owns all these turnpike bonds, right?
Gary: I spoke at the Press Club in Tulsa and pointed out that the person that worked at the Tulsa World and wrote the articles was present and how blessed we were that he was present and that I wanted to pose 3 questions to him and in a few minutes ask him to stand and provided the answer to the questions, as I was sure he would know the answers as he was the very person that wrote articles for the readers of the Tulsa World newspaper. Those questions were:
- Is the Turnpike a State Agency?
- Does the State of Oklahoma make one cent off of the Turnpike?
- Can we, the tax payers of Oklahoma, find out who actually owns the turnpike bonds and, therefore, owns the turnpikes?
In a few minutes I asked him to stand and provide the answers. He sat, never rising. I told the audience that I anticipated that he would not rise and answer the questions as either he didn't know the answers or he did know the answers and certainly wasn't going to tell the audience what they were.
A few weeks later we had a debate before the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. After the debate I was approached by the editor of the Tulsa World, who seemed a bit angry, and he said:
"Well Richardson, you always do put on a good show", to which I responded, "Neal, you know that it was more than a show, or do you? Do you not know the truth about the Turnpike or is it that you do and the newspaper intentionally lies to the citizens that read your paper? Which is it"? At which point he jabbed me in the chest at which I held my hands up and said "Neal, don't ever again touch me out of anger, ever". A crowd had gathered by now. The whole point is, I was obviously touching a sensitive spot when sharing the "truth" with the citizens.
STP: So if you followed the money on the Turnpike system where would it lead:
Gary: To the well connected people in the state. As an example, when the Turnpike was preparing to put in the turnaround at Wellston, I was told that Neil Caleb's son was a Real Estate agent and before the process began the son had his real estate signs going up all over that area. And based on all the other things I had heard, it wasn't difficult to believe. Wonder how much he made and or helped with OTA's efforts.
STP: Who runs the OTA?
Gary: The board members for the OTA are appointed by the Gov and even though they commit to 8 years, as I am told, they don't receive any pay that we know of.
STP: Does the OTA receive regular audits like the other state and county agencies receive?
Gary: The Gov is the only one that can call for an audit of the OTA, I assume the board could as well but they are appointed by the Gov, and do you know how many times the OTA has been audited? To my knowledge, NONE. Plus, these board members can be removed, of course, without cause.
STP: Have there been any recent news stories on the OTA?
Gary: About 4 years ago I was called by a local TV reporter who told me that she had been assigned to do an investigative report on the OTA and was told to come and interview me. I told her that I would accommodate her even though I was sure that she NEVER would be allowed to air such a report. She, of course, didn't believe me. She came and I told her that the best thing I felt that I could do for her was to tell her things I would be searching into should I be doing the report, emphasizing that we both were wasting our time. She didn't believe me. Several months later I called her and asked her about the report and she said that they "had pulled her off it temporarily but that she would get back on it soon". Again, I told her it never would happen. And it didn't. I told her, as I recall today, some of the things I would look into were:
- Who owned the Turnpike bonds.
- Look at when the Turnpike typically get increases in their rates. I have checked this in the past few years but when I ran for Gov, it was typically during a Governors lame duck session of their service.
- Check into when the refinancing of the bonds typically took place and at the time it was typically during the beginning of the term of the new Governor.
- The Wellston deal.
- What was it about the bridge on the East side of Tulsa that has been there for years, out in an open pasture, that had to cost several hundred thousand to build and to my knowledge, hasn't been in use up to this date.
Then about 3 years ago so I received a call from an investigative reporter from the Daily Oklahoman who said he had been assigned to look into the OTA and was told to come and meet with me. I thought maybe this could be for real since the paper had of recent been purchased by someone out of Colorado. He came over and I filled him with information. He asked if I could give him a couple of names of individuals that might confirm what I was telling him and/or add to what I told him. I gave him 2 names. Sometime later I ran into one of the guys and asked if he had ever been contacted and he said no. I called the reporter only to learn that he had "just completed his work and the article would run the following week". It was nothing but a white wash. No surprise. He didn't contact the 2nd person either.
STP: Do other states have turnpikes?
Gary: Of the twenty four states west of the Mississippi, when I ran for Governor, there were nine rural turnpikes in existence. Oklahoma had eight rural turnpikes at the time. Think about this, nine rural turnpikes over twenty four states and eight of them in our state. Oklahoma was the first state that is West of Pennsylvania to complete a toll road exclusively from REVENUE BONDS. The very first.
STP: What effect do the turnpikes have on the state?
Gary: In addition to the toll roads already eating up our State like CANCER in a body, that according to Title 69 Sec 1705, just a few short years ago, there had already been given authorization for thirty two more turnpikes. Also the OTA doesn't build the high ways to last. Why? Is it to have available more kick back money?
I was told when I ran for Gov, that the OTA only releases new construction that is short enough in miles, that it is only profitable for in State contractors to bid the jobs. They are too small for out-of-state contractors to bid. I had a place in Colorado and in the last twenty years I rarely every saw construction on I-70. Not the case on these Turnpikes in Oklahoma even though the weather here is less destructive.
STP: Gary, does the Turnpike actually make a lot of money?
Gary: Yes is the simple answer. While I was running for Governor, we learned that there was in excess of a half billion (and that is with a "b") in the OTA's bank account. In a few minutes I will go over some additional numbers with you regarding the money the OTA makes by sharing their budget they put together for year 2009. You will be shocked, as was I, that the Oklahoma Tax Payers are losing all this money and on top of that, having to pay out the nose to travel around our State, putting more dollars into the hands of these bond holders whose identity we can't find out.
STP: How did you learn so much about the OTA?
Gary: Al, there are two things that happened that got me started looking into the Turnpike and finding out what it is all about. One, a former brother-in-law of mine got a job with the State of Oklahoma and was assigned to work with the Turnpike. He started telling me things that were going on that I found quite interesting and yet very disturbing, knowing what it had to be costing we, the taxpayers of Oklahoma.
Next, in putting together a team to run my campaign, I hired an old time campaign consultant from Oklahoma City that had been involved in the political arena for many years. After spending hours with me hearing my heart about wanting to do something to bring about a more healthy economy for our State, he shared with me a friend of his that knew all about the OTA, knew about the study that Oklahoma had paid well over a $100,000 to have done by a big 8 accounting firm and knew all about the results. We ended up hiring this gentleman, who did the research for the State of Oklahoma, to do all our research, and assist us in putting together my plan for Oklahoma, which, of course, included systematically removing the Turnpikes and placing them under the ODOT, which is exactly what the conclusion was that was drawn by the big 8 accounting firm that was hired and paid over $100,000 to do the study. A study that was paid for, done and NEVER USED.
STP: We were talking earlier about the impact of the Turnpikes….
Gary: You know, the Turnpikes destroy Economic Development. For example, take a look between Tulsa and OKC and see what you find. Then do the same between OKC and the Kansas border and you will see quite a difference. The turnpikes reduce property values and therefore reduce taxes for the small towns and they can grow. It takes money from their schools, police departments, and small businesses. At one time, many years back, there was a turnpike between Dallas and Ft Worth and after it was taken down, look at how quickly the economic development exploded. Six Flags over Texas and on and on. The same thing would happen if the Turner Turnpike was taken down between OKC and Tulsa. It would be unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable as to what would happen.
STP: But surely someone knows who owns these OTA bonds?
Gary: Who owns these bonds? No one that knows is telling but you have to wonder how many politicians own bonds that make a ton of money. Based on the 2009 Adopted Budget, the tolls in Okla plus the violation recoveries and concessions, the OTA was projected to collect over $199 million. That left net operating income of $131.6M. Add to that $42.6 million plus $10 million of interest income and deduct the debt service (principal/interest) of $94 million and the OTA generated over $90 million.
They gave $42 million to the State for Motor fuel and the balance available in one year was $47.5 million dollars. I am sure it is much more now. Take for example the money they make off of McDonalds. I stopped there recently for a cone and asked the attendant why it was so expensive and she replied "I guess because we are off out here by ourselves". Captive audience!
STP: What can the citizens do to help bring transparency to the OTA and start the process to take the roads back into state hands?
Gary: I would say that the most effective way would be to form a group of people in each County to make it known to their representatives that they wanted the situation changed or else they would be voted out at the next election. The problem is, its like Martin Niemoller, Protestant pastor said many years ago, when he said, "In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the "social democrats" and I remained silent as I was not a social democrat. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up as I wasn't a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out." It's much like the folks on the East Side of Oklahoma County that are now fighting the Turnpike System. There have in the past been other groups here and there to fight the system when a turnpike was going into their area. But, I still say, it will take a Governor of Oklahoma that has the WILL to organize such an effort, starting with educating the citizens of our State.