Romance, contract link Oklahoma senator with lobbyist

Oklahoma state Sen. Harry Coates, a Republican, has been having a romantic affair with lobbyist Haley Atwood while the two worked together to help a private company that had hired Atwood to secure a $10 million-a-year state contract.
BY ANN KELLEY and JOHN ESTUS Modified: December 2, 2010 at 5:38 pm •  Published: December 1, 2010
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photo - Left: Oklahoma Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, and lobbyist Haley Atwood. Oklahoman archives
Left: Oklahoma Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, and lobbyist Haley Atwood. Oklahoman archives

©Copyright 2010, The Oklahoman

A state senator and lobbyist who are having a romantic affair worked together to steer a lucrative state contract toward a private company that had hired the lobbyist, an investigation by The Oklahoman has revealed.

The wife of Sen. Harry Coates said Monday her husband has told her he is having an affair with lobbyist Haley Atwood. Atwood, 29, who didn't deny the affair with Coates, 60, also is married.

State officials last week announced plans to award a $10 million-a-year state contract for a new juvenile center to the Ada Youth Academy Authority, which has selected a private operator, Rite of Passage, to run the new center.

Rite of Passage earlier this year hired Atwood for consulting work.

Coates, R-Seminole, and Atwood have since been actively involved in helping Rite of Passage and the Ada group secure the juvenile center contract, records and interviews show.

Coates, who also didn't deny the affair with Atwood, said his relationship with the lobbyist didn't influence his decision to get involved in the juvenile center project.

“That's a private issue and has nothing to do with the project,” Coates said. “They are totally separate matters.”

Working together

Coates said he supported Rite of Passage because the company takes a unique approach to juvenile corrections by running academies that help juvenile offenders successfully re-integrate back into society by teaching them life and job skills.

“It's not just another kids' prison. They really do have success,” Coates said.

Rite of Passage President S. James Broman said Coates was one of several legislators who supported his company's effort to operate the new juvenile academy.

“Sen. Coates to me seemed like a dignified man that had a great reputation and was passionate about this project for making kids in Oklahoma better,” Broman said.

Broman said his company hired Atwood for consulting and “front end work.”

He said her involvement in his company's pursuit of the contract was “minimal” and that she wasn't hired as a lobbyist.

However, records show Atwood and Coates met several times this year with Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian, whose agency oversees state juvenile detention centers and programs.

Christian said last week Coates and Atwood sometimes jointly attended meetings with him about the juvenile center project and spoke in favor of Rite of Passage and the Ada group.

Coates and Atwood also jointly attended at least two early planning meetings with officials in Clinton, who were working on their proposal for the detention center, Clinton Mayor Allen Bryson said.

Bryson said their presence seemed odd, because Coates' legislative district doesn't include any of the cities vying for the project. He said they hired their own lobbyist when they learned Coates and Atwood were meeting with Christian, and Atwood was working for the competition.

Atwood also corresponded with Office of Juvenile Affairs employees about financing and operations for the new center, according to e-mails obtained by The Oklahoman.

Broman, the Rite of Passage president, said he had heard rumors about a romantic affair between Coates and Atwood but didn't know if they were true.

“Even if it was true, I just don't see how they could have influenced anything,” Broman said. “Our proposal consistently scored higher from a group of independent procurement officers than anyone else.”

The affair

Coates and Atwood did not deny having an affair but declined to discuss it. Both said it is “irrelevant” to the work they do at the Capitol.

“My personal life just needs to be left at home when I go to work to do my job,” Atwood said.

Coates, R-Seminole, had previously denied having an affair with Atwood.

In an August interview with The Oklahoman, Coates said he and Atwood were working together on the juvenile detention center project but denied “vicious rumors” about their affair.

Coates in August said members of the Republican caucus started the rumors because he openly opposed laws dealing with cracking down on illegal immigration.

Atwood's husband, Nick Atwood, 32, is an attorney in Gov. Brad Henry's office. He filed for divorce in July.

Haley Atwood is pregnant and said in a counterclaim to her husband's divorce filing that she is pregnant by her husband.

Coates' wife of 41 years, Betty Coates, said she had an attorney draw up separation papers but hasn't filed them because her husband wouldn't sign them.



TIMELINE

• 2006: U.S. Department of Justice files a lawsuit against the state Office of Juvenile Affairs alleging civil rights of juvenile inmates at L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs were being violated because of deplorable conditions and poor management.

• 2008: The Office of Juvenile Affairs

settles lawsuit by agreeing to implement several changes at Rader — the state's only maximum-security juvenile detention center.

• Fall 2009: The Office of Juvenile Affairs board begins seeking proposals for a new juvenile center.

• Winter 2009: Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian says Rader may have to shut down because of budget cuts.

• 2010: Legislators begin considering asking the Office of Juvenile Affairs to build a new juvenile detention center.

• Spring 2010: Sen. Harry Coates and lobbyist Haley Atwood tour a Rite of Passage juvenile offender academy in Colorado.

• May 27: Legislature passes a bill requiring the Office of Juvenile Affairs to seek requests for proposals for a new juvenile center.

• May 28: Gov. Brad Henry signs bill; Christian and Coates meet in Coates' office.

• June 4-7: Christian tours Rite of Passage academy in Colorado.

• June 7: The Office of Juvenile Affairs issues request for proposals for new juvenile center.

• Aug. 1: The Department of Central Services begins evaluating five proposals for a new juvenile center.

• Aug. 16: Contract award decision expected but is not made.

• Sept. 17: Vendors that submitted proposals for new juvenile center tell the Office of Juvenile Affairs board members they are frustrated no decision has been made.

• Nov. 23: Christian announces intent to award contract for new juvenile center to Ada Youth Academy Authority, which had retained Rite of Passage to operate the center; contract also calls for expansion of an existing juvenile center in Tecumseh to make it suitable for maximum-security juvenile inmates.

JOHN ESTUS,

CAPITOL BUREAU

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