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Meeting held over Oklahoma juvenile center bid clouded by affair

An agency director met Thursday with the leader of the state Senate as part of an investigation into alleged bid rigging involving a multimillion-dollar state contract.

By JOHN ESTUS The Oklahoman & BARBARA HOBEROCK World Capitol Bureau Modified: December 3, 2010 at 8:23 am •  Published: December 3, 2010
An agency director met Thursday with the leader of the state Senate as part of an investigation into alleged bid rigging involving a multimillion-dollar state contract.

State officials are considering whether to delay awarding the contract to a group favored by Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, and lobbyist Haley Atwood, who are having an extramarital affair.

The contract is to be signed Dec. 6. It is for new juvenile detention centers needed in part because the problematic L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs is expected to be closed soon.

Brian Bingman, expected to be the Senate president pro tem, met in his office for about 45 minutes Thursday with Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian. They declined to answer questions about what was discussed.

Christian has come under fire from failed bidders who claim he, Coates and Atwood rigged the bidding process to favor a client of Atwood.

Bingman's spokesman, Jared Brejcha, said the Senate investigation is "serious" and of an "explosive" nature.

"We will continue to reserve judgment on the matter until the full facts are known," Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said in a written statement.

The Oklahoman revealed Wednesday that Coates, 60, and Atwood, 29, were having an affair while working together to help steer the $10 million-a-year contract to a group working with Rite of Passage, a private juvenile academy operator that had hired Atwood.

Sen. David Myers, R-Ponca City, on Thursday said he has concerns with the way the juvenile center contract award process was handled.

"I think to be fair, they need to start the whole process all over again," Myers said.

Myers was among the lawmakers who visited a Rite of Passage academy in Colorado while discussions were under way about building a new juvenile center in Oklahoma.

Myers said he paid his own way and took a commercial flight. Myers said he attended because one of the proposals under discussion called for building a facility in Wakita, which is in his Senate district.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson on Thursday declined to investigate a state employee group's allegations that Christian, Coates and Atwood conspired to rig the contract award process so it favored Rite of Passage.

Failed bidders have made similar allegations and announced plans to appeal the award and file Ethics Commission complaints against Coates, Christian and Ben Graves, the architect hired to design the center.

An assistant attorney general said in a letter Thursday to the Oklahoma Public Employees Association that his office had spoken to Department of Central Services Director John Richard about the process used to award the contract and found no problems.

"We are awfully disappointed that a phone call to the selecting agency was all the investigation that they feel is needed," said the association's deputy director, Scott Barger.

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