DALLAS -- The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority's proposal to issue $596 million in debt was delayed again this week amid reports of ongoing federal investigations into the agency's bond sales and an underwriter's involvement in related forward purchase contracts.
An authority spokeswoman said yesterday that agency officials canceled interviews scheduled for tomorrow with eight underwriting teams, and delayed submission of another bond proposal to state oversight commissions until after the election.
"With all the issues and the investigations going on, we felt it would be better to wait until after the election and see what the next governor indicates he might want to do," authority spokeswoman Mary Kay Audd said. "The overriding concern was the investigation into Stifel."
Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., the St. Louis-based bond firm that is the largest and most powerful underwriter in Oklahoma, has been the subject of intense scrutiny. In recent years, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Internal Revenue Service have launched investigations into school cash management programs and Oklahoma Turnpike Authority bond issues involving Stifel.
The latest events in the long-standing controversy focused on Stifel's involvement in the authority's 1992 refunding bond issue. In a statement released late last week, Robert Cochran, former head of public finance for Stifel in Oklahoma, acknowledged that he had recently testified to the SEC on subjects related to his and Stifel's involvement.
"I have absolutely nothing to hide and welcome the opportunity to respond to questions so that the rumor and innuendo surrounding this matter can be put to rest once and for all," Cochran said in a prepared statement.
Shortly after the release of the statement, the Sunday Oklahoman reported that Stifel secretly earned $6.5 million from the state's issuance of $608 million in turnpike refinancing bonds in 1992.
The Oklahoman said Stifel was a silent partner and made the earnings from a forward purchase contract placed with Sakura Global Capital Inc., Tokyo, after questionable bidding procedures.
Audd said the investigative report by the Oklahoman was one of the reasons that the board delayed underwriter interviews and resubmission of its bond proposal to the state's Legislative and Executive Bond Oversight Commissions for an indefinite period.
Earlier this fall, the legislative commission defeated an earlier version of bond proposal, which was initiated by Gov. David Walters, who did not run for re-election. That prompted the turnpike authority to prepare plans to submit another proposal to sell bonds -- this time by negotiated rather than competitive sale -- to expand and improve the Oklahoma toll road system.
However, the proposal now appears to be on hold at least until the new governor takes office in 1995.
The gubernatorial candidates have said "they support toll roads that are feasible, but they have not gone much beyond that," state bond adviser Jim Joseph said. "It will be interesting to see what happens .... I don't imagine we will have a clear sense until the end of January."
Meantime, Joseph said his office has given all records related to the 1992 turn-pike refinancing issue for $608 million, in which Stifel and Merrill Lynch & Co. were co-senior managers, to federal investigators.
"They requested all of our documentation in connection with the 1992 transaction, series A-E," he said, adding that "they did not specify what they were investigating in detail."
In the past, financial sources have said the advance purchase agreements and the guaranteed investment contracts were the subject of intense scrutiny.
In a Nov. 6, article, the Oklahoman reported that Stifel entered into the forward purchase agreement, in which it invested money from the bond escrow account, without public disclosure of its involvement in the transaction.
"It is our understanding that the turnpike authority ... was informed. But the disclosure was oral, and we have no documentation of that," a Stifel spokesman said.
Cochran, who left Stifel several months ago amid the federal investigations and growing controversy, could not be reached for comment. However, in the statement released Nov. 3, he said: "During my tenure with Stifel, there was a conscientious effort at all times to comply with applicable regulatory requirements and industry practices."