In case you missed it over the long holiday weekend, we had a story in Friday’s paper about taxpayer money being used to settle a legal case involving the state Labor Department.
The point of the story wasn’t so much the amount of the settlement (which was still fairly hefty at $200,000) as it was about these kinds of out-of-court settlements taking place outside of the public eye.
My colleague, Nolan Clay, covered the original story back in May. The parties settled a week before the case was set to go to trial in federal court. But neither side disclosed the amount the state–taxpayers, actually–had to pay the plaintiff, citing “confidentiality agreements.”
One of my duties as Database Editor is to maintain the internal databases we use to supplement our reporting. Each month, I download hundreds of thousands of state financial records from the Office of State Finance under a longstanding Open Records request. Included in those records is a database of all the warrants, or checks, that state agencies send to vendors and other parties.
Some of these vendor payments show up on the state’s Open Books site. But the level of detail isn’t always enough to track exactly why these payments are made. So when we started trying to find out the Labor Dept. legal settlement, we turned to our own data download.
As an example, here’s what a typical warrant search yields:
In this case, I found a $100,000 payment in May from the state Labor Department to the Department of Central Services, whose Risk Management division pays most legal claims for the state. That $100,000 payment was the Labor Department’s highest of the 2009 fiscal year and was suspiciously round, unlike most of the warrants that I come across. Using another search, I then found the $200,000 payment going out in May from the Department of Central Services to the plaintiff in the case, Laurie Allen, and her attorneys.
But I still needed more confirmation of the actual amount and which agency paid for what share of the settlement. Using the information culled from the warrants database, I called up both the Department of Central Services and the Office of State Finance and requested paper copies of the checks and their associated invoices. The attorneys still weren’t talking, but we had enough to show how much Oklahoma taxpayers were on the hook for in the legal settlement.
Written by Paul Monies