A week ago on Twitter, I posted the out-of-state-travel authorization form submitted by Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva of Flagler County, FL, showing the estimated cost of his trip to Philadelphia to speak to noted hate group Moms For Liberty. The reason Oliva needed to submit that form was because he was going to Philadelphia in his official capacity, and Arkansas taxpayers were going to foot the bill.
For these purposes, let’s ignore the question of why the head of public education in Arkansas was speaking in his official capacity to a group that would like nothing more than to gut public education in America. Let’s focus, instead, entirely on the cost.
Several people noticed that Oliva’s flight cost $1,087.96, which seems like a lot of money for a coach-class round-trip ticket between Little Rock and Philadelphia. After all, a similar ticket, leaving Thursday and returning Friday, is currently about $380 to $400, and that’s right in line with the typical price for a round-trip ticket between the two cities.
This led a number of people to speculate that perhaps Oliva had flown first class, rather than coach. After all, how else would explain his paying 2.5 times as much as a normal ticket?
Well, turns out, the answer appears to be that he just didn’t care about the price at all and booked whatever was most convenient for him. His outbound flight, which left at 10:18 AM on Thursday and had a two-hour layover in Atlanta, June 29, cost $333.78 for a coach ticket (including the various taxes and fees). Oliva’s return flight, which left Philadelphia at 4:57 PM on the 30th and had a one-hour layover at Chicago O’Hare, was a mind-boggling $754.20. For a coach ticket.1
Despite ostensibly inviting Oliva to speak to their yearly hatefest, it appears Moms For Liberty was not covering any of the costs of Oliva’s actual attendance. In addition to the 1,087.98 in flights, Arkansas taxpayers were also on the hook for Oliva’s hotel room on that trip. So Oliva got himself a room right there at the Marriott where the event was taking place, dropping another $243.21 in the process. All told, once you include his parking fees at Clinton Airport and his shuttle to the hotel from the airport in Philly, Oliva spent $1,359.66 of taxpayer money to pander to Moms For Liberty and rub elbows with the kind of people that no one should willingly want to associate with.
The room rate and parking and shuttle costs are fine, all things considered. The plane ticket, however, is literally $700 more than the flight should have cost the state. And $700 in waste over what should have been a $400 ticket is the kind of behavior that would not (and should not) get approved for a regular state employee traveling on the public dime.
Based on this obvious overspending on his flight, however, I sent a FOIA request for all of Jacob Oliva’s travel expenditures, guessing that this Philly trip would not be the only example of Oliva’s wasting of public funds.
Spoiler: I was correct. So let’s take a look at some of the more egregious examples.
On March 20, Oliva’s executive assistant, Adrienne Williams, emailed Tammi Ricketts, who arranges travel for the Department of Education, asking Ricketts to “reserve hotel rooms for Dr. Pfeffer, Sec. Oliva, Courtney, and Greg” in Jonesboro for check-in on March 27 and check-out on March 28. Specifically, Williams said to reserve the Hilton Garden Inn on Caraway Rd. in Jonesboro.
A short time later, Ricketts responded, informing Williams that the Hilton Garden Inn does “not offer the government rate anymore,” making the rooms $144 each. However, Ricketts noted, “the Hampton Inn down the road, which is owned by Hilton also, offers the rate of $96.” If the parties still wanted the Hilton Garden Inn, Ricketts explained, she would need an approval letter from Greg Rogers, Chief Finance Officer, since $144 “is over the government rate.”
For context, the “government rate” for hotel stays in Arkansas refers to the maximum allowable room price that does not require advance authorization. Currently, that rate is $98.
Ms. Williams replied a short time later, telling Ms. Ricketts to go ahead and book with Hampton Inn.
It appears that the very idea of staying at the Hampton Inn in Jonesboro was just too much for someone at the ADE to bear. Two days later, Dr. Ivy Pfeffer wrote a letter to Mr. Greg Rogers, Chief Finance Officer, asking for permission to spend more on lodging.
The letter is interesting, primarily because Dr. Pfeffer was blatantly dishonest in it, writing, “The cost of the hotel stays will be more than the $98.00 per night allotted by the GSA.” Making this claim when you know that you already have rooms reserved Hampton Inn for $96.00 is nothing short of a bald-faced lie.
Indeed, even the claim that “the cooperative education offices are more than two hours away” is demonstrably false. According to the ADE Data Center, the education co-op in Craighead County is the Crowley’s Ridge Education Co-Op in Harrisburg, AR. The distance from the Arkansas Department of Education offices in Little Rock to the co-op in Harrisburg is 1 hour and 51 minutes (118 miles).
And what event was so important in Jonesboro that Dr. Pfeffer felt like lying to the Chief Finance Officer was warranted? Well, as she put it: “The executive leadership team of [the Department of Education] will be traveling to promote the LEARNS Bill” and “it will be conducive for [the people traveling] to be close by their destinations and readily available to participate in events and/or meetings hosted by other organizations.”
Because this was of such high importance, Dr. Pfeffer did not even ask for authorization for the Hilton Garden Inn that Oliva’s assistant had originally request. No, Dr. Pfeffer went big, asking for authorization for Embassy Suites, which runs $206/night.
At some point between March 22 and March 27, Mr. Rogers gave the ADE folks approval (again, based on Dr. Pfeffer’s lie) to get rooms at the Embassy Suites. The Hampton Inn rooms, which had been $109.92 each with tax, were cancelled and rooms at the Embassy Suites, which ran $235.71 each after tax, were booked on March 27.
All told, a trip to pimp Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act that should not have incurred any lodging cost for the state of Arkansas because the location was less than two hours away wound up costing the state nearly $1,000 for four rooms at the Embassy Suites. Even if you feel like 1 hour and 51 minutes is close enough to 2 hours to justify an overnight stay, Oliva and company’s getting authorization to spend over $950 for four rooms by lying about not being able to find rooms for $98 or less when they already had $96 rooms booked is absurd. More importantly, it’s a waste of over $500.
Remember that thing from a paragraph ago where we were talking about how a state employee can only get lodging for in-state travel if the place they are traveling to is more than two hours from their usual office?
Jacob Oliva has no use for that pesky rule.
On July 10, 2023, Oliva was slated to give the keynote address at the ADE Annual Summit in Hot Springs. (He was also originally scheduled to host a welcome session after the keynote, but he canceled that obligation without explanation.)
Last I checked, the Hot Springs Convention Center is less than an hour away from the ADE offices.
Yep, still 54.5 miles.
Any other state employee who needed to be in Hot Springs by 8:30 would just leave Little Rock by 7:15 or so to provide a little wiggle room on the arrival time. Pretty simple. Jacob Oliva, however, is a precious baby who can’t possibly be expected to drive 55 miles that early in the day. So he dropped $170.61 on a room that we all collectively got to pay for.
“Now wait,” you might be thinking, “isn’t that room more than $98?” It is, and you are very smart for noticing it and having that thought. I’m very proud of you.
So does that mean that Oliva got pre-authorization to spend more than $98 and to get a hotel room when the location was only 55 miles away? In a word, no. At least not based on any information provided by the ADE.
Because of course he didn’t.
On April 11, Oliva’s assistant emailed Tammi Ricketts, asking Ricketts to “reserve 3 rooms for Sec. Oliva…and Dr. Pfeffer at the Hampton Inn” in Arkadelphia. If you wonder why they need three rooms for two people, his assistant has you covered, explaining, “please put two room in Sec. Oliva’s name–there may be a third guest, but I don’t have their name.” So…yeah. I guess we’re now in the business of booking extra hotel rooms for unnamed potential third parties. That’s cool.
Of course, Arkadelphia is barely over an hour from Little Rock. Perhaps this is why, before booking any rooms, Ms. Ricketts forwarded Ms. Williams’ email to Courtney Salas-Ford, the ADE Chief of Staff, to ask if she (Ricketts) could proceed with the request.
In what might be the single most interesting piece of information provided by the ADE, Ms. Salas-Ford wrote to Ms. Ricketts, with the CFO copied, saying, “Thank you for checking with me as requested” (emphasis mine). Given that this trip was only a couple weeks after the $1,000 lie-riddled Jonesboro trip, Ms. Salas-Ford’s request that Ms. Ricketts check with her before booking hotel rooms for Oliva and Pfeffer is…something.
Anyway, contrary to Oliva’s request that he get three rooms at the Hampton Inn, Ms. Ricketts booked two rooms at the Fairfield Inn. Because even the most special princes of Florida need to be told no once in a while, it seems.
Not that Oliva only getting one room instead of two fixes the overall problem here, mind you. This was, yet again, an instance where Oliva was traveling barely an hour but could not possibly be arsed to drive that distance two times on the day he needed to be in Arkadelphia. Meaning, yet again, he managed to waste a few hundred dollars of someone else’s money.
There are other lodging expenses incurred by Oliva as well. $112.21 in Fort Smith on June 1 when he decided that he needed to go to a meeting that Courtney Salas-Ford was already attending jumps out. But at least that was more than two hours away and was a $98 room. Sure, it was an unnecessary expenditure that only someone who didn’t care about wasting money would make, but at least it fit within the rules such as they are.
And that is really the issue here–Oliva is not just a profligate spender of other people’s money; he’s someone who thinks so highly of himself and his position that he is willing to ignore the rules (or even have someone lie to avoid the rules) if it means he can get himself a more convenient flight or a free hotel room courtesy of the citizens of Arkansas. While you or I or anyone else would think it was absurd to get a hotel room in Arkadelphia or Hot Springs just to avoid an hour drive the next day, Oliva thinks nothing of such expenditures.
It’s likely the same mindset that makes him not care that millions of public dollars will go to religious schools and people who can already afford to have their kids in private schools in Arkansas.
As with the rest of the people that have ridden into Arkansas on the back of Sarah Sanders’ broom, we’ll all be better off when Jacob Oliva goes back to Florida permanently.
Astute observers will note that the return flight was an H-class coach fare, which means it was upgradeable to business class.↩