A state board tasked with expanding access to broadband internet to Oklahoma households has shifted millions in federal money to instead upgrade telecommunications systems for emergency responders. Legislators previously rejected funding such a plan. 

Oklahoma currently ranks in the bottom ten states when it comes to residents with access to highspeed broadband. So state lawmakers created the Oklahoma Broadband Office in 2022 with the goal of bringing high-speed broadband to 95% of Oklahoma households by 2028. The Legislature sent the new state agency $382 million of the state’s $1.87 billion share of federal relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act funds to help accomplish that mission.

In November, the Broadband Governing Board voted to send $19.9 million of federal relief money to the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety to help upgrade its telecommunication system and towers for first responders in 21 counties. State lawmakers had previously declined to hear the Department of Public Safety’s request for federal relief funding, putting it aside until a larger plan could be hammered out to upgrade all state-owned telecommunication towers. 

Department of Public Safety officials said they never asked the Broadband Office for the money.

“We thought it was a dead issue after the Legislature said ‘no,’” said Sarah Stewart, a spokeswoman for the agency. 

Mike Fina, chairman of the Broadband Office board, said the Department of Public Safety did not specifically request the money from the Broadband Office. He said he saw the project on the state portal for relief funding proposals and legislators encouraged him to pull it out and fund it. But he declined to provide names. 

“I really don’t want to escalate this, so I prefer not to use any legislator’s names,” he said.

Fina, who was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, said no one from the executive branch asked him for the funding. 

Legislators in charge of the committee distributing the state’s American Rescue Plan funds said they didn’t discuss the emergency responder funding with Fina and were unaware of the agency’s decision to divert federal money to it.

Upon learning of the project at the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding meeting last week, state lawmakers expressed confusion about why the Broadband Office sent money intended to expand public high-speed internet access to the Department of Public Safety. 

Kirk Martin, the interim director of the agency, told the committee that Fina was encouraged to fund the project by “legislative leaders.”

Rural Broadband fiberoptic access being installed by Central Electric Cooperatives around Stillwater Oklahoma. Fiber cable is being installed using existing Highline wires. COURTESY OSU AGRICULTURAL COMMUNICATIONS SERVICE

“I’m not aware of anybody in leadership — and we’ve been polling people — in the House or the Senate that had conversations along those lines,” Sen. Chuck Hall, R, Perry, told The Frontier

Hall told Oklahoma Broadband executives during the meeting last week that the Legislature had made it “very clear” they do not support using federal relief money on the tower upgrades for the Department of Public Safety. 

Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City; House Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow; a spokesperson for House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka and the co-chairs of the committee on relief funding, Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, and Sen. Roger Thomspon, R-Okemah, all said they were unaware of the diverted funds. 

Thompson said he is “digging into” what happened and believes there was some major miscommunication. 

House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, also said he has no clue who instructed Fina to send money to the Department of Public Safety. 

“Who called Mike Fina?” Echols said to The Frontier following the meeting. “If somebody called him and told him to do a proposal that wasn’t approved, who did it? Those are my questions and I don’t understand how we got to this point.”

Preston Lay, a legislative liaison for the Department of Public Safety, said the agency did not ask the Broadband Office for funding and assumed any request for money would instead have to go through the regular state appropriations process. Lay said he was notified in December that the agency’s request for federal relief money was being rerouted to the Broadband Office. Fina later told him the money would be ready in January.

The director of the Department of Public Safety’s wireless information network gave a presentation at the meeting before the Broadband Office approved the funds. Stewart said Fina asked the agency to provide the information. 

A spokesperson for the Broadband Office said the Department of Public Safety has already pulled down nearly half of the relief money, about $8.9 million. According to the state’s ARPA tracking system, of the $382 million allocated, the only funds the Broadband Office has disbursed is the $8.9 million to the Department of Public Safety.

Stewart said the department has not yet expended the funds, but there are “invoices out for purchases concerning that money.”

Members of the Legislature want the Department of Public Safety to hold off on spending anymore.

Fina told The Frontier that he had been aware of the need to upgrade communication towers for emergency responders for nearly 20 years and believed sending the relief money for the project would be a good way to help. Fina said his office has followed all state and federal rules on how the relief money should be spent. 

He said he would look at pulling back the funds if the Legislature requested it. But it would be hard to get the money back because some of it has already been drawn down and has contracts attached to it, he said. 

“We funded a really great project that’s going to protect first responders,” Fina said. “That’s what I’m going to hang my hat on. And if the legislature wants us to pull that back, we will review that and see if that’s even possible.”

This is just the latest scrutiny the Broadband Office has come under in the past month.

The Oklahoma Broadband Board recently came under fire for not having the minutes from two previous meetings, when members discussed hiring a new executive director. The board also faced pressure to hire the governor’s preferred candidate for the job.