Board member defends Indian museum decisions in wake of critical audit
BY BARBARA HOBEROCK World Capitol Bureau
Sunday, October 21, 2012
10/21/12 at 7:37 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY - A board member for the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority is defending the panel's actions in the wake of a critical state audit released last week.
Dan Batchelor is an original member and serves as secretary-treasurer on the board that is overseeing construction of the financially troubled American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City.
"I felt the audit did not fully grasp the mission that the Legislature assigned to the authority," Batchelor said.
An audit by State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones criticized the board for picking the most expensive plan when it had yet to secure funding. According to the audit, the project was negatively impacted by "inconsistent funding, disregard for best practices, and inadequate board and staff expertise."
Batchelor said the authority, created in 1994, was charged with building something that had never been done anywhere in the world.
The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum was mothballed earlier this year after lawmakers declined to approve a $40 million bond issue to be matched with $40 million in private donations to complete the project.
The facility has received about $97 million in state funds, $15.7 million in federal dollars and $8 million from other sources.
Gov. Mary Fallin, who served on the authority as lieutenant governor, called for the audit, which covered the period of July 1, 2003, through June 30, 2012. Fallin's office did not respond to a request for information about her service on the board.
Enoch Kelly Haney, who as a state senator authored legislation creating the facility and served on its board, declined to comment, as did other former and current board members.
Regarding the audit's criticism of budgetary decisions, Batchelor said that was not the major concern before the board, which was charged with creating a world-class attraction.
"The question before the board was, should we try to accomplish the full mission or scale that back and only do pieces or parts of it, which would cost less money," he said. "The unanimous conclusion of the board after years of study and effort - bear in mind all of those on the board are volunteers from various walks of Oklahoma life - was that we were asked to carry out this mission and that we should remain committed to do that."
The audit notes that an April 2001 budget was adopted for $169 million, when only $5 million in bond funds had been secured.
"Actual construction began in 2006 with only 29.5 percent of the required funding for the project completion having been secured," the audit notes.
The audit criticized the board for its lack of experience in undertaking such a project. Batchelor defended the board, saying those on it came from a variety of backgrounds, including finance, banking, business, public affairs and tribal history, among other areas. He called board members "exceptionally qualified."
"We were given a unique assignment," he said. "You don't go out and find people who have done this before."
Batchelor said the board faced setbacks beyond its control.
In 2002, Congress passed legislation authorizing $33 million for the center. It was signed, but the money never materialized. In 2003, the Iraq War began, followed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then the 2008 recession, according to a letter to the state auditor from J. Blake Wade, Native American Cultural and Educational Authority executive director.
Batchelor said he initially doubted the feasibility of building such a facility but now is a firm believer. He said Oklahoma, with its rich history in Native American culture, is in a unique position to make the project successful.
Nathan Atkins, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, said Bingman believes the audit shows what was already known - that the process was not as efficient as taxpayers deserve.
Bingman, R-Sapulpa, believes it is important to find a solution to finish the center, Atkins said.
"We don't want to see the project fail," Atkins said. "Taxpayers made such a substantial investment. At this point, it would be a gross injustice not to get some type of return on the investment."
Authority members in 2001
Native American Cultural and Educational Authority Board members: Bill Anoatubby, Dan Batchelor, Gene Bruno, Joe Byrd, Gary Gray, Barbara Jobe, Elmer Manatowa, Bud Sahmaunt and Gregg Wadley
Non-voting, ex-officio members: Bob Blackburn, Mary Fallin, Jane Jayroe, Russell Perry, Betty Price and Barbara Warner
Original Print Headline: Indian museum decisions defended
Barbara Hoberock 405-528-2465
Construction of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City is incomplete because of funding shortages. The Oklahoman file