A multimillion state contract signing was halted Friday amid allegations that the bidding process was rigged to favor a client of a lobbyist having an extramarital affair with a state senator.
Senate leaders on Thursday asked Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian to delay Monday's signing of a $10 million-a-year contract for new juvenile centers. Christian agreed to delay the signing one month so the Senate can investigate the bidding process.
The contract was to go to an Ada group working with Rite of Passage, a private juvenile academy operator that hired lobbyist Haley Atwood.
The Oklahoman revealed this week that Atwood, 29, and Sen. Harry Coates, 60, were having an extramarital affair at a time they were helping Rite of Passage win the contract.
Failed bidders welcomed the contract signing delay.
â€œAny truly independent investigation is going to determine that this whole â€¦ bidding process needs to be thrown out and we need to start over again,â€ said Brian Costello, president of Avalon Correctional Services, a rejected bidder.
Greg Pierce, chairman of the Ada Youth Academy Authority, said his group is disappointed about the delay, but they're going to continue to compete for the project.
â€œWe've worked hard on this, and have done nothing wrong,â€ Pierce said.
Coates, who is a proponent of Rite of Passage's juvenile academy model, was not in Thursday's meeting between Senate leaders and Office of Juvenile Affairs officials.
Coates said he spoke late Friday to Senate Pro Tem-elect Brian Bingman, who is leading a Senate investigation into how the contract was awarded.
Coates said Bingman told him he will ask the attorney general's office to review the allegations surrounding the process used to award the contract.
â€œI said I'm good with that, and I'll provide any information,â€ Coates said.
On Thursday, an assistant attorney general told a state employee group upset with the bidding process that he had made a phone call to the agency overseeing the contract award and found no reason to investigate further.
Through his spokesman, Bingman declined to answer questions about the Senate investigation.
House Speaker-elect Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said in a statement: â€œI support the agency's decision to delay awarding the contract because an action of this magnitude should not occur under a cloud of doubt. Any decisions concerning this issue directly impact the juveniles served.â€
Coates and Atwood have denied wrongdoing in the juvenile center project. They declined again Friday to discuss their relationship, saying only that it did not influence their work on the juvenile project.
Meanwhile, the city of Clinton on Thursday mailed a formal ethics complaint against Christian to the state Ethics Commission.
Christian declined to comment Friday.
The city also mailed a complaint against Ben Graves, an architect working on the juvenile center project, to the Oklahoma Board of Architects, Landscape Architects and Interior Designers.
The complaint against Graves alleges he was named as Clinton's architect for the project, until it became apparent he was working for Ada, too.
It states at the time, Graves told Clinton officials there was no conflict of interest because the Ada project was completely different from Clinton's.
â€œThat's fine. I can defend it. I didn't break any laws,â€ Graves said.
Clinton Mayor Allen Bryson said they considered filing an ethics complaint against Coates but decided to let his peers in the Senate â€œmake that call.â€
Bidder says request not met
The statute legislators approved earlier this year calling for a new juvenile center requested secure beds.
The request for proposals for the new center asked for 56 maximum-security beds.
The Rite of Passage academy would have no secure beds.
Instead, it would have 144 unsecured beds in a campuslike setting.
The winning bidder also proposed adding 56 maximum-security beds to an existing juvenile center on state land in Tecumseh, which never made a bid for the project.
Failed bidders say the Rite of Passage academy isn't what the agency requested and that they were never told state land could be used.
â€œTo be fair, if you want that you've got to put that out for bid and let people bid on that,â€ Costello said.
â€œThe fact is that the director, Gene Christian, for a long time now has obviously wanted to have an academy modeled after the Rite of Passage facility in Colorado. He's made that comment to numerous people before, after and during the RFP process â€” including us.â€
Costello said Avalon officials plan to meet with those conducting the Senate investigation to explain why they think the bid process was unfair.