The multimillion-dollar deal for a new state juvenile detention center linked to a senator and lobbyist's romantic affair has been delayed again.
A planned signing this past Friday of a $10 million-a-year state contract for the juvenile center was called off at the last minute amid concerns from House Speaker Kris Steele.
Steele, R-Shawnee, said Tuesday he asked Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian to delay the signing because he is concerned the contract may not fulfill what the Legislature wanted when it asked the agency to build a new juvenile center.
“I'm not accusing anybody of anything, but I do think it's important that I meet with Director Christian and the other interested parties to ensure the contract has been handled appropriately,” Steele said.
Steele said he plans to meet with Christian this week.
The contract has been dogged by criticism since it was revealed that Sen. Harry Coates, 60, and lobbyist Haley Atwood, 29, were having an extramarital affair while working to help clients of Atwood win the contract.
Christian last year announced plans to award the contract to an Ada group working with a private juvenile academy operator and an architecture firm that were clients of Atwood and favored by Coates, R-Seminole.
When Coates and Atwood's affair became public, failed bidders alleged Coates, Atwood and Christian had rigged the bidding to favor the Ada group.
An attorney general's review of the bidding for the contract released this month found the affair couldn't have influenced bidding.
Christian did not return calls and e-mails Tuesday.
Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, launched a Senate investigation into the matter in November and asked the attorney general to review the bidding process used for the contract.
A spokesman for Bingman said Tuesday there are no further plans in the Senate to look into the contract or Coates' actions in the juvenile center matter.
“The speaker, obviously he has some issues he needed to look into, I would imagine similar to just how we needed to look into some from our side, so that's completely understandable,” said Jarred Brejcha, a spokesman for Bingman.
Did it meet intent?
The bill the Legislature passed last year asking the agency to seek bids for a new juvenile center requested a maximum security juvenile center. The agency's request for proposals asked for 56 maximum security beds.
The Ada group's winning proposal called for private juvenile academy operator Rite of Passage to run a 144-bed nonsecure academy in Ada and for the state to add 56 maximum-security beds to an existing juvenile center in Tecumseh.
Failed bidders have alleged the Rite of Passage academy isn't what was asked for by the Legislature.
“I would just like some assurance that the contract was indeed in compliance with legislative intent,” Steele said Tuesday.
Atwood began working with Rite of Passage last year. She is now a registered lobbyist for the Nevada-based company, Ethics Commission records show.
Atwood, Coates and Office of Juvenile Affairs officials worked closely last year to change state law so Rite of Passage could legally work with the agency, records show.
Failed bidders have pointed to the law change and visits made by Coates, Atwood and Christian to a Rite of Passage academy in Colorado as proof the three inappropriately favored the Ada group.
Records show the Ada community made a substantial investment toward the juvenile center project before it was publicly announced who was to receive the juvenile center contract.
The Ada Industrial Development Corporation in early November paid $490,000 for about 64 acres northwest of Ada near State Highway 99. The land was for the Rite of Passage academy's campus and was purchased about two weeks before it was announced that the Ada group would be awarded the juvenile center contract.
The development corporation is a nonprofit that works on economic development projects in Ada.
Friday's planned signing was not publicly announced, and the Office of Juvenile Affairs has refused to release information about it when asked.
Greg Pierce, chairman of the Ada Youth Academy Authority, said Office of Juvenile Affairs officials last week told his group not to speak to reporters about the signing.
Pierce confirmed officials with the Ada group were on their way to sign the contract Friday when Christian called and told them the signing had been delayed.
“I'm confident that it's not an issue of anything that we've done or haven't done properly,” Pierce said. “We're still very hopeful the project will be built here.”
Coates said he suspects the signing was delayed because private prison companies whose bids were rejected are making a “last ditch effort” to get the deal killed so they can make another bid for the lucrative contract.
“This is the weirdest deal ever,” Coates said.
Officials from private prison operator Avalon Correctional Services, which lost its bid for the contract and plans to appeal the award to the Ada group, said they weren't aware a contract signing was set for Friday.
Officials from another failed bidder, the city of Clinton, also said they were not aware of the planned signing.