While trying to address a delayed and over-cost veterans home project in Sallisaw and revelations that personal identification information is being stored in datasets hosted outside of the state network, the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs’ new executive director has requested a performance audit from the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office.
ODVA interim executive director Greg Slavonic, hired by the Oklahoma Veterans Commission in March, asked this morning that the special audit cover the period from Jan. 1, 2021, through Dec 31, 2023. A previous audit of ODVA from 2018 identified a litany of office culture concerns that Slavonic and current members of the Veterans Commission say have lingered over the last five years.
Slavonic’s request for an audit comes just ahead of his 14th week as interim executive director, a position he accepted March 10 after the Veterans Commission terminated former ODVA director Joel Kintsel and former deputy director Sarah Lane. Kintsel took over in the wake of a damning 2018 state audit.
“I’ve never taken over the leadership of an organization without an audit to review the many aspects of the company,” said Slavonic, a retired rear admiral and a former undersecretary of the U.S. Navy. “Since I did not have the opportunity for an orderly turnover from ODVA senior leadership due to terminations or resignations, my ability to gain an insight into the agency and ask questions was not possible. This audit will provide objective insight into the agency and identify past discrepancies for corrective action.”
Kintsel, who had stopped attending commission meetings prior to his termination, had argued that three members of the Veterans Commission had been improperly appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, whom he unsuccessfully challenged in the June 2022 Republican primary for governor. Kintsel alleged massive “corruption” by Stitt’s administration, including unverified claims that an ODVA computer was improperly accessed by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, and he clashed with new members of the Veterans Commission installed by Stitt throughout 2022.
Meanwhile, those commissioners heard a report Feb. 16 from the state’s chief information officer that veterans’ personal identification information is being stored in datasets hosted outside of the state network. Kintsel did not attend that Veterans Commission meeting, nor others in January.
At one meeting, other ODVA staff members were left to answer questions about the delayed and over-cost Oklahoma veterans home project in Sallisaw, which has since received about $21 million in supplemental funding from the Legislature owing to issues with the original architect and agency cost estimates. Kintsel’s absence from that meeting infuriated several ODVA staff members, who had already been irked by Kintsel’s leave of absence in 2022 to run for governor.
‘Dedicated staff of ODVA deserve better’
After taking over the agency, Slavonic’s administration conducted an employee survey in April as part of an effort to identify and improve responsiveness to employee concerns. At its May 12 meeting, the Veterans Commission received preliminary results of the survey as well as statistics showing that the agency had seen 647 resignations and 108 terminations over the prior year.
Slavonic told commissioners that many ODVA staff members had not received compensation increases for six or seven years.
“There were many comments about employees feeling they were being bullied. Possible harassment issues,” he said.
Veterans Commission Vice Chairman Sid Ellington said commissioners would be launch “lunch and learn” meetings with staff to improve communication and cultural concerns “so that we mitigate what has been described repeatedly in the survey as toxic leadership and retaliatory actions.”
“We’re going to try to get a handle on that,” Ellington said. “Many people who filled out the survey (…) were worried about retaliation. That’s a leadership issue, and we’ve got new leadership in place.”
In his press release Tuesday announcing the ODVA audit request, Slavonic said it is his “duty” to create a better environment for agency employees.
“The hardworking and dedicated staff of ODVA deserve better,” he said. “It’s my duty to deliver on that promise.”
The Veterans Commission is scheduled to meet in a special meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, June 22, at the Vezey Veterans Complex, 2132 NE 36th St., Oklahoma City.
In Slavonic’s press release Tuesday, he noted that the Performance Audit Services group within the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office conducts performance audits in accordance with government auditing standards. The release said performance audits provide “an objective and systematic examination of evidence to provide an independent assessment of the performance and management of a program against objective criteria.”
In a special audit report released in August 2018, former State Auditor Gary Jones stated: “This is the third audit released on the ODVA in the last five years and is probably the most troubling. The issue, really, comes down to management style, common decency, respect for its mission, and the potential impact on patient care.”