A legislative study looking at job-training courses for Oklahoma juvenile offenders in state and county facilities struck a raw nerve Thursday with a lawmaker whose district had contended to get a new juvenile detention center.
Rep. Todd Thomsen became irked when told that House Speaker Kris Steele had gone to Tulsa to look at a program by the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau that offered vocational training courses to juvenile offenders.
Thomsen, R-Ada, said he blames Steele, R-Shawnee, for delays last year in awarding a multimillion-dollar contract to an Ada group working with a private juvenile academy operator and an architecture firm.
Allegations of bid rigging were made about the contract after it was linked to a state senator and lobbyist's extramarital affair. An attorney general's review found the affair couldn't have influenced bidding.
The Office of Juvenile Affairs eventually scuttled the contract for financial reasons.
Ada, Tecumseh sites
Thomsen said the proposal called for building a juvenile academy with little security near Ada and expanding an existing maximum-security juvenile detention center in Tecumseh.
Thomsen, a member of the House of Representatives Public Safety Committee, said he also was irked to learn during the panel's interim study that a classroom building had been erected in the past year at the Tecumseh site.
Thomsen blamed Steele for killing the Ada proposal, which he claimed would have saved state money.
“At no time did I have any kind of interaction as a positive from the speaker's office in an effort to help to follow up and implement that program,” Thomsen said. “For the people of Ada, it is highly offensive to then find out that the speaker of the House has actively engaged with other representatives on a similar program and yet never communicated with me, never communicated with the people of Ada.”
John Estus, Steele's press secretary, said the speaker's only involvement in the Ada contract was asking questions about the bidding process to ensure it was handled properly.
“Several other parties had similar questions, so he certainly wasn't alone in his questioning of what would have been a significant, taxpayer-funded contract,” Estus said.
Steele's only involvement with the Tulsa program was to go there to look at the program; he made a similar trip to Ada a couple of years ago, Estus said.
“He never endorsed either community's plan over the other,” Estus said. “He just took trips to learn about those communities' interest, as any speaker would do.”
Estus said Steele was unaware of the new classroom at the Tecumseh facility.
Thomsen said after the meeting his frustration over the Ada contract “may have got the best of me.”
“The people of Ada for a two-year process worked on that, they had committed resources, land, people,” he said. “There would be an obvious economic impact for Ada. There would be an obvious economic benefit for the state.”
Rep. David Brumbaugh, R-Broken Arrow, said he was surprised by Thomsen's comments and hopes they won't distract from the need to educate juvenile offenders. He said he would like to see vocational training courses of at least 14 weeks included in juveniles' sentences.
Brent Wolf, director of the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau, said juvenile offenders who do not receive vocational and educational training are more likely to become adult offenders.