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 â€œirrelevantâ€ and couldn't have influenced the bidding.
â€œThere 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,â€ 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 â€” private juvenile academy operator Rite of Passage â€” 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.
â€œThere 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,â€ 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.
â€œNo one's mentioned it. I'm going on about my work and filing my bills,â€ Coates said. â€œMy position is the same. They are two separate issues.â€
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.
â€œThe next step is to sign the contract and then allow the appeals process to focus on any technical concerns that are raised,â€ 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.
â€œThey didn't find any evidence that the bidding procedure was compromised, because they really didn't look,â€ said Brian Costello, president of Avalon.
Coates said he is disappointed failed bidders continue to have â€œsour grapesâ€ about the matter.
â€œIt 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 â€¦ the city of Ada, Rite of Passage,â€ Coates said.
â€œThese are all good people who worked really hard to try to do something good for the adjudicated youth of Oklahoma.â€
The attorney general's review focused on the bidding process conducted by the state Central Services Department. It did not address whether there was improper contact concerning the contract between state officials and potential bidders, nor whether Coates acted improperly by having an affair with a lobbyist who was working on legislation with him.
Brent Clark, an attorney for the Clinton group, said the review was a â€œtotal whitewashâ€ because it focused only on the nuances of the bidding process.
â€œAll they did was got an outline of the process and reviewed it. For a lawyer to put out a report like this almost makes me embarrassed to be a lawyer, too,â€ Clark said.
Clark said he is disappointed the review didn't address what he called inappropriate conduct by some state officials, specifically Christian.
â€œThe affair is improper, but no one really cares about that,â€ Clark said. â€œThe real bad actor in all this is Gene Christian.â€
Christian made multiple visits to a Rite of Passage academy in Colorado before bidding began and urged his board members to do the same, records show.
He also dined at a private club in downtown Oklahoma City with Rite of Passage officials the night before bidders made their presentations for the new juvenile center to the agency's board, records show.
Further, Christian's legislative liaison worked closely with Atwood and Coates this year on a bill that changed state law to allow the agency to work with charter schools, records show.
Rite of Passage operates its academies as charter schools and wouldn't have been able to do business with the agency if not for the bill, which passed and is now law.
Failed bidders have said Christian's actions make it appear as if he was biased in favor of Rite of Passage.
The winning bid was made by an Ada group working with Rite of Passage.
The bid calls for a 144-bed nonsecure juvenile academy in Ada to be operated by Rite of Passage. The state's request for proposals asked for a maximum-security detention center with secure beds.
To meet the secure bed requirement, the Ada group proposed expanding an existing juvenile detention center in Tecumseh and adding the secure beds there.
Failed bidders have complained the Rite of Passage academy is unnecessary because it doesn't adequately replace the problematic L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs, a maximum-security center that houses some of the state's most dangerous juvenile offenders.
Legislators earlier this year asked the agency to seek bids for a new juvenile center in part because Rader is expected to close soon.
The Rite of Passage academy would admit certain juvenile offenders who have already been in traditional detention centers. It would operate as an academic academy that seeks to prepare juvenile offenders to be productive members of society following the completion of their sentences.
Coates, Atwood and Christian have said such an academy offers a unique approach to juvenile corrections not currently available in Oklahoma.
â€œIt's a good day for the youthful offenders in Oklahoma,â€ Coates said Thursday.
â€œNow, hopefully, the process can move on, they can sign a contract with Ada and start building a facility that will turn these kids into taxpayers instead of tax users.â€
Comments by Senate Pro Tem-elect Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa: â€œI 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. â€œIn 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. â€œThere 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.â€