A multimillion-dollar state contract is under scrutiny after revelations that a state senator and lobbyist who are romantically linked helped steer the contract to a company they favored.
The state Senate began investigating the matter Wednesday after revelations by The Oklahoman that Sen. Harry Coates, 60, and lobbyist Haley Atwood, 29, were having an extramarital affair while helping one of Atwood's clients secure a contract to operate a new state juvenile center.
â€œAllegations being made regarding the recent Office of Juvenile Affairs contract are serious,â€ Senate Pro Tem-elect Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said in a statement. â€œWe will thoroughly investigate this issue but reserve any judgment until the full facts of the investigation are known.â€
Complaints from several groups rolled in Wednesday claiming the bidding process for the contract was set up to favor the company supported by Coates, R-Seminole, and Atwood. The contract is scheduled to be signed Monday, and Ada officials say they have not been notified of any delay.
The company, Nevada-based Rite of Passage, also has been spoken highly of by Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian, who played a significant role in the juvenile center project, records and interviews show.
Coates, Atwood, Christian, several legislators and an Office of Juvenile Affairs board member visited a Rite of Passage academy in Colorado while discussions about building a new state juvenile center were under way.
Juvenile Affairs board member Ed Smith said he paid his own way to Colorado to visit Rite of Passage after Christian encouraged him to go there. Smith is the police chief in Coates' hometown of Seminole and ran for state representative this year and lost.
â€œFor me as a board member, it was simply to take a look at the facility and then listen to a presentation about what they do there,â€ Smith said.
Christian visited the Colorado academy in June just days before his agency asked for proposals for the new Oklahoma center, records show.
Christian last week announced plans to award a $10 million-a-year state contract to the Ada Youth Academy Authority, which has selected Rite of Passage to operate the center.
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association on Wednesday sent a letter to Attorney General Drew Edmondson asking him to investigate the process used to award the contract.
â€œWe received the OPEA letter, and we are reviewing the allegations therein,â€ Edmondson's spokesman, Charlie Price, said.
Coates has said he did not improperly influence the selection process. Officials from Ada, the Office of Juvenile Affairs and Rite of Passage also said the process was appropriate.
â€œI wouldn't have any concerns to the point of saying we need to start over and look at this again,â€ Juvenile Affairs board member Donnie Nero said. â€œI think it was objective â€” the way it was handled.â€
Director's role questioned
Christian has come under fire from failed bidders who say he worked with Coates and Atwood to rig the bidding process to favor Rite of Passage.
Christian did not return phone calls Wednesday.
Christian last week said he wasn't involved in the selection process, but Rite of Passage President S. James Broman on Monday told The Oklahoman that Christian was â€œaggressiveâ€ in supporting the juvenile academy model his company offers, which seeks to treat juvenile offenders and teach them life and job skills to prepare them to reintegrate into society.
Broman said his company's model is different from â€œbig boxâ€ detention centers that simply lock up offenders and don't treat them.
â€œGene had an opportunity to build another big box â€¦ and he chose not to,â€ Broman said.
Broman repeatedly said Christian â€œchoseâ€ his company.
Christian had said he wasn't involved in the selection process.
Broman later said his group's proposal was rated highest during the Department of Central Services' bidding process.
â€œWhether Gene Christian liked our concept more than any other or whether he didn't, that's to be seen. What had to happen was we had to win this competitive proposal,â€ Broman said.
Failed bidders also have accused Christian of trying to get a job with Rite of Passage.
Clinton Mayor Allen Bryson said Christian made a comment during a visit this year to tour possible juvenile center sites in Clinton that made it seem like Christian was concerned about his future.
â€œHe said â€˜the way the political winds are blowing, I'll probably be looking for a job in January,'â€ Bryson said. â€œIt sort of came out of the blue, and at the time didn't make much sense.â€
Broman denied having any discussions with Christian about working for Rite of Passage.
Bryson said Wednesday that the city of Clinton plans to file complaints with the state Ethics Commission against Coates, Christian and architect Ben Graves, of Architects in Partnership, which is designing the new juvenile center.
Bryson alleges they conspired to rig the bidding process to favor of Rite of Passage.
Bryson said favoritism started when the Department of Central Services inserted a requirement into a draft of a request for proposals that a city had to have a population of 15,000 to qualify for the juvenile center project.
Of the cities that were considering submitting proposals for the center, only Ada had a population of more than 15,000.
â€œThey tried to cut everyone but Ada out of the deal from the beginning,â€ Bryson said.
Bryson said the population requirement was removed after a meeting attended by Gov. Brad Henry and Christian.
Bryson said the meeting was called after several groups, including Clinton, complained.
Another failed bidder, Avalon Correctional Services, plans to appeal the Department of Central Services' decision to award the contract to the Ada group because it believes Rite of Passage was privy to information not given to other vendors, said Brian Costello, Avalon's president.
Avalon also contends the Ada group's proposal doesn't match what the Office of Juvenile Affairs initially requested.
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association raised the same concern in its letter to the attorney general.
The statute directing the Office of Juvenile Affairs to issue a request for proposals for a new juvenile center calls for a center with secure beds, and the request for proposals emphasizes the need for maximum security beds.
Rite of Passage's proposal calls for a 144-bed youth academy on 65 acres in Ada. They will be nonsecure beds.
â€œThe agency's needs have mysteriously changed from secure beds to a nonsecure charter school,â€ the public employee group's letter to the attorney general reads.
The winning bid also calls for a 56-bed, maximum-security facility to be built at the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Facility in Tecumseh.
Several failed bidders and the employees group have questioned why the Rite of Passage center in Ada is necessary if the Tecumseh center will have the maximum-secure beds the agency requested.
â€œAn award to build a school does not follow logically from an RFP requesting bids to build a Juvenile Treatment Facility to replace an aging maximum security facility,â€ a draft complaint by Avalon reads. â€œIt is now apparent that the selection process was influenced and manipulated in inappropriate ways through contacts, meetings and communications that occurred between OJA and third parties.â€
Steve Turner, a member of the Ada Youth Academy Authority, said Christian told him Wednesday that a state senator may hold a hearing to review the contract award process.
â€œHe never said which senator, but he did say there was somebody out there that said â€˜they don't want there to be a cloud over this process,'