Oklahoma attorney general finds nothing improper in contract linked to affair

The Oklahoma attorney general's office today concluded the state properly awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to a group working with a lobbyist who had an extramarital affair with a state senator.
BY JOHN ESTUS and ANN KELLEY Modified: December 31, 2010 at 8:12 am •  Published: December 31, 2010
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The Oklahoma attorney general's office on Thursday said nothing criminal occurred when a multimillion dollar state contract was awarded to a group supported by a romantically linked senator and lobbyist.

The $10 million-a-year contract for new state juvenile detention centers has been dogged by claims that bidding was set up to favor clients of lobbyist Haley Atwood, who had been having an extramarital affair with Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole.

Investigators with the attorney general's office found the senator and lobbyist's romantic affair was “irrelevant” and couldn't have influenced the bidding.

“There was no evidence that the process was compromised or undue influence was exerted to justify further investigation of this matter as a potential criminal violation,” a multicounty grand jury investigator wrote in a letter Thursday to Senate Pro Tem-elect Brian Bingman.

The Oklahoman earlier this month reported that Coates, 60, Atwood, 29, and some state officials worked hand-in-hand this year to help Atwood's clients win the contract, going so far as to change state law so one client — private juvenile academy operator Rite of Passage — could qualify for the contract.

The attorney general's findings would not absolve Coates of possible punishment by the Senate for his conduct with the lobbyist. However, Bingman said the Senate will not punish Coates over the matter.

“There are no plans at this time for additional inquiries by the Senate. In absence of new information coming to light, I believe this matter is closed and that we should put it behind us,” Bingman said in a statement.

Coates said no one has asked him to step down because of the affair, which he said had nothing to do with the contract.

“No one's mentioned it. I'm going on about my work and filing my bills,” Coates said. “My position is the same. They are two separate issues.”

Contract signing

The contract signing was originally set for Dec. 7 but was delayed when Senate leaders called for an investigation into the bidding process.

Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian said Thursday he is pleased with the review.

“The next step is to sign the contract and then allow the appeals process to focus on any technical concerns that are raised,” Christian said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Juvenile Affairs said there are no definite plans on when or if the contract might be signed.

If the contract is signed, failed bidders are expected to appeal. They and some state legislators have said the contract should be rebid because of the controversy surrounding it.

Representatives from two failed bidders, Avalon Correctional Services and a Clinton group, said they intend to take the matter to district court if their administrative appeals fail.

Failed bidders on Thursday called the review inadequate and said the attorney general's office never contacted them during the review.

“They didn't find any evidence that the bidding procedure was compromised, because they really didn't look,” said Brian Costello, president of Avalon.

Coates said he is disappointed failed bidders continue to have “sour grapes” about the matter.

“It is unfortunate that those who did not go to the effort to submit the winning bid would go to such efforts to try to smear the process, smear good people like Gene Christian and DCS employees … the city of Ada, Rite of Passage,” Coates said.



Comments by Senate Pro Tem-elect Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa:

“I am relieved to find that there is no evidence of undue influence or criminal wrongdoing in this matter as the attorney general's investigation concluded. The seriousness of the allegations required a full and thorough examination of the facts and an independent review by the attorney general was needed.

“In the Oklahoma Senate we strive to uphold high standards of conduct. Personal and private behavior should not prohibit our effectiveness at the Capitol or bring legitimate official business into question. Thankfully, the independent investigation found none of the criminal allegations to be true and Sen. Coates is clear of wrongdoing related to this matter.

“There are no plans at this time for additional inquiries by the Senate. In absence of new information coming to light, I believe this matter is closed and that we should put it behind us.”

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