Oklahoma state agency says it didn't overlook health department budget woes
Oklahoma City — An agency accused of ignoring financial problems at the Oklahoma State Department of Health said the former official who pointed the finger misconstrued a conversation between friends.
Mike Romero, who resigned as the Health Department's chief financial officer last week, said in a memo written Jan. 31 that some employees of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services knew the Health Department faced a financial shortfall but did nothing in response. Preston Doerflinger, interim commissioner of the Health Department, was head of OMES.
Extensive financial problems at the state Health Department came to light in October, when then-Commissioner Terry Cline revealed the department might not be able to cover payroll. Cline and several other officials resigned in the face of accusations they had presided over years of overspending, which had been covered by shifting around money.
The Legislature appropriated $30 million to stabilize the department, but it wasn't enough to prevent layoffs and the loss of state funding for child abuse prevention programs and community health centers.
Romero said Carol McFarland, director of performance and efficiency at OMES, suggested the Health Department seek an audit before its financial problems were made public, indicating she and perhaps other employees knew the department's budget was in trouble.
A written response from OMES, dated Tuesday, said McFarland is a friend of Julie Cox-Kain, former senior deputy commissioner at the Health Department. According to OMES, Cox-Kain said she was “unsure of the integrity” of information she was getting from Romero, and McFarland suggested an audit because Romero was new to his job and had little experience in government accounting.
“An audit would be helpful to (Romero) as well as senior leadership and Ms. Cox-Kain would have audited information from which to work,” the written response said. The audit is still in progress.
It isn't clear whether McFarland mentioned Cox-Kain's concerns to anyone else at the time. Romero and Cox-Kain couldn't be reached for comment.
The OMES response is the latest in a surprising series of communications released over the past week. Until shortly before Romero's resignation, he and Doerflinger often appeared together before the state Legislature, and the Health Department credited Romero for identifying the coming budget crunch. Neither publicly voiced dissatisfaction with the other's work at the Health Department until Romero resigned.
In the memo sent before he resigned, Romero alleged OMES employees had suggested the Health Department use federal funds to make payroll, which could be inappropriate if the funds came with restrictions.
“I am concerned that the OMES employees put forth this option because they were precisely acquainted with the possibility that the statewide accounting system could be abused in this fashion,” Romero said in his memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Oklahoman.
OMES denied employees ever told the Health Department to shift around federal money, and said they only inquired about what funding sources might be available.
In his resignation letter, Romero also accused Doerflinger of improperly monitoring employees' testimony in investigations into the Health Department, which Doerflinger denied. The Health Department on Monday sent a statement saying Romero's behavior had changed drastically after other health officials spotted problems with his job performance, and expressing disappointment with lawmakers who had publicized his criticisms.
The OMES response also pointed to a variety of what it said were misunderstandings by Romero of how the state's accounting systems worked. Romero had faulted OMES' system for allegedly placing Health Department funds into one “bucket” without regard to their use.
“Throughout the memo, Mr. Romero jumps to conclusions without seeming to understand he has incomplete information,” the OMES memo said.