State agency leaders dined at a private club with a group vying for a multimillion-dollar state contract the night before the group and other future bidders pitched their proposals to the agency's board.
The April 15 dinner meeting came while Office of Juvenile Affairs officials were working to change state law so a company that is part of the group could work with the agency, records obtained by The Oklahoman show.
The group dining with agency officials included officials from Ada and private juvenile academy operator Rite of Passage.
Together, they made a successful joint bid for the agency's juvenile center contract that has since fallen under scrutiny.
The group also was working with lobbyist Haley Atwood, 29, who has had an extramarital affair with state Sen. Harry Coates, 60.
Their romance has factored into scrutiny of the bid the group made because Atwood and Coates, R-Seminole, supported it.
Failed bidders have alleged Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian, Atwood and Coates rigged the bidding process to favor the Ada group and Rite of Passage.
Christian, Atwood and Coates have denied wrongdoing.
The contract signing between the Ada group and Office of Juvenile Affairs was set for this past Monday, but has been delayed a month so the attorney general's office can review the bidding process.
Senate leaders asked for the review.
Christian and his chief of staff ate dinner with Rite of Passage President S. James Broman at the Petroleum Club in downtown Oklahoma City the night before Rite of Passage and other bidders made their proposals to the agency's board, records show.
Also dining with them was Steve Turner, chairman of the committee that organized Ada's proposal for the juvenile academy and a vice president at East Central University in Ada.
Turner called the dinner a â€œmeet and greet,â€ and he said everyone paid for themselves.
Turner said Office of Juvenile Affairs board member Ed Smith also attended the dinner meeting at Petroleum Club.
Christian said there was nothing inappropriate about the meeting. He described it as an opportunity to learn more about Rite of Passage.
Clinton Mayor Allen Bryson, whose city made a failed bid for the juvenile center contract, said his group met twice with Christian but never in a social setting.
â€œWe never went to the Petroleum Club â€” I'm brokenhearted,â€ Bryson said. â€œAnd without reservation, I can say we were never invited to a meet and greet with Mr. Christian.â€
Christian toured a Rite of Passage academy in Colorado in January.
In an e-mail to a Rite of Passage employee thanking him for the tour of the group's Ridge View Academy, Christian recounts a conversation with his son, who toured the academy with him.
â€œHe asked if I had anything like the Ridge View Academy,â€ Christian wrote. â€œOf course, my response was, â€˜Nothing of the sort.' He said â€˜Get One!'â€
Christian also wrote that he had been â€œstrongly suggestingâ€ to his agency's board members that they visit the Colorado academy.
Christian toured the Colorado academy again in June just days before his agency asked for bids for a new juvenile center.
Several legislators â€” including Coates â€” also toured the Colorado academy before the bidding began for Oklahoma's new juvenile center.
State law changed
The change in state law Office of Juvenile Affairs officials sought allowed the agency to send its juvenile inmates to charter schools while incarcerated.
The practice wasn't previously possible, but agency officials and Atwood were successful this year in lobbying the Legislature to change state law to allow it, records and interviews show.
Rite of Passage operates its academies as charter schools and couldn't have accepted state juvenile inmates if not for lawmakers changing the law this year, Christian said Wednesday.
Christian said Wednesday that Rite of Passage wasn't the reason his agency sought to change the charter school law. He said his agency already had been planning to ask that the law be changed so they could offer charter school programs to juvenile inmates at L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs.
JLynn Hartman, the agency's legislative liaison, on April 6 e-mailed Atwood the proposed language for the bill that would allow the juvenile agency to have a charter school.
Hartman wrote in an April 20 e-mail to a Senate legislative analyst working on the bill, House Bill 2753, that Atwood was planning on discussing the proposed language with then-House Speaker Chris Benge.
In that e-mail, Hartman told the legislative analyst: â€œâ€¦ the Rite of Passage program would be a great asset to have in Oklahoma. However, having the academy would require us to have the authority for a charter school. We are very open to the idea and welcome whatever you could do to help us achieve ability to have a charter school.â€
Atwood had been asking the legislative analyst about whether the agency could start a private charter school, according to the e-mail.
An April 23 e-mail from the legislative analyst to Coates' assistant recounts a conversation that week between Atwood, Coates and the analyst about the charter school issue.