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Oklahoma senator-lobbyist affair news leads to contract scrutiny

The Oklahoma Senate is investigating the role a senator and lobbyist who are having an affair played in a lucrative state contract awarding process.
BY ANN KELLEY and JOHN ESTUS and by BARBARA HOBEROCK - Tulsa World Modified: December 2, 2010 at 9:36 am •  Published: December 2, 2010

A multimillion-dollar state contract is under scrutiny after revelations that a state senator and lobbyist who are romantically linked helped steer the contract to a company they favored.

The state Senate began investigating the matter Wednesday after revelations by The Oklahoman that Sen. Harry Coates, 60, and lobbyist Haley Atwood, 29, were having an extramarital affair while helping one of Atwood's clients secure a contract to operate a new state juvenile center.

“Allegations being made regarding the recent Office of Juvenile Affairs contract are serious,” Senate Pro Tem-elect Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said in a statement. “We will thoroughly investigate this issue but reserve any judgment until the full facts of the investigation are known.”

Complaints from several groups rolled in Wednesday claiming the bidding process for the contract was set up to favor the company supported by Coates, R-Seminole, and Atwood. The contract is scheduled to be signed Monday, and Ada officials say they have not been notified of any delay.

The company, Nevada-based Rite of Passage, also has been spoken highly of by Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian, who played a significant role in the juvenile center project, records and interviews show.

Coates, Atwood, Christian, several legislators and an Office of Juvenile Affairs board member visited a Rite of Passage academy in Colorado while discussions about building a new state juvenile center were under way.

Juvenile Affairs board member Ed Smith said he paid his own way to Colorado to visit Rite of Passage after Christian encouraged him to go there. Smith is the police chief in Coates' hometown of Seminole and ran for state representative this year and lost.

“For me as a board member, it was simply to take a look at the facility and then listen to a presentation about what they do there,” Smith said.

Christian visited the Colorado academy in June just days before his agency asked for proposals for the new Oklahoma center, records show.

Christian last week announced plans to award a $10 million-a-year state contract to the Ada Youth Academy Authority, which has selected Rite of Passage to operate the center.

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association on Wednesday sent a letter to Attorney General Drew Edmondson asking him to investigate the process used to award the contract.

“We received the OPEA letter, and we are reviewing the allegations therein,” Edmondson's spokesman, Charlie Price, said.

Coates has said he did not improperly influence the selection process. Officials from Ada, the Office of Juvenile Affairs and Rite of Passage also said the process was appropriate.

“I wouldn't have any concerns to the point of saying we need to start over and look at this again,” Juvenile Affairs board member Donnie Nero said. “I think it was objective — the way it was handled.”

Director's role questioned

Christian has come under fire from failed bidders who say he worked with Coates and Atwood to rig the bidding process to favor Rite of Passage.

Christian did not return phone calls Wednesday.

Christian last week said he wasn't involved in the selection process, but Rite of Passage President S. James Broman on Monday told The Oklahoman that Christian was “aggressive” in supporting the juvenile academy model his company offers, which seeks to treat juvenile offenders and teach them life and job skills to prepare them to reintegrate into society.

Broman said his company's model is different from “big box” detention centers that simply lock up offenders and don't treat them.

“Gene had an opportunity to build another big box … and he chose not to,” Broman said.

Broman repeatedly said Christian “chose” his company.

Christian had said he wasn't involved in the selection process.

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