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

Harry Coates said Tuesday: “I'm not saying that any kind of relationship outside of your marriage is proper. It's not. I'm not going to admit to anything else here, but obviously you've talked to Betty.”

Harry Coates was narrowly re-elected this year to his Senate District 28 seat.

His wife was featured on his campaign material, and she actively campaigned for him, not knowing about the affair until he broke the news to her the day after the election, she said.

Haley Atwood gave $170 to his campaign, Ethics Commission records show.

Involvement began early

Coates was brought into the juvenile detention project by Norman architect Ben Graves.

Graves said his firm, Architects in Partnership, and San Francisco-based firm Kmb Architects, are designing the new $27 million campus in Ada for Rite of Passage.

The plan also requires an addition be built to the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh to house maximum-security level juveniles.

Architects in Partnership will be designing that alone, he said.

Graves said he asked Coates, his longtime friend, to get involved in the project.

He said he knew the senator would be helpful in “changing the way Oklahoma treats its juvenile offenders.”

Graves said Coates was so helpful, he thinks the Ada campus should be named after the senator.

Architects in Partnership employed Atwood as a lobbyist for about 10 months, mainly to arrange meetings with state officials for the project, Graves said.

Graves said Coates introduced him to Atwood, but did not ask him to hire her.

Atwood doesn't list Architects in Partnership as a client on her lobbying list with the Ethics Commission. Not listing a lobbying client with the Ethics Commission is a misdemeanor.

Coates paid Architects in Partnership $300 from his campaign in May for a flight to Denver to tour Rite of Passage's academy there, Ethics Commission records show.

Broman said Atwood was with Coates when the senator toured the Colorado academy.

Protests

Avalon Correctional Services, the city of Clinton, CMSWillowbrook, Custer City and the Ada Group submitted proposals for the new juvenile center.

Clinton officials say they and others plan to ask that the decision to award the contract to the Ada group be re-evaluated.

Among the concerns they have cited are whether Coates improperly influenced the selection process.

Christian, the Office of Juvenile Affairs director, last week announced intent to award the contract to the Ada group.

Christian, who said he wasn't involved in the selection process, said the Ada group's proposal scored the highest during a bid evaluation by the Department of Central Services.

But attorney Brent Clark said the project has been a money grab from the beginning. Clark represents the city of Clinton, which was among the five entities that responded to the agency's request for proposals.

“The private and public conduct of these individuals is an abomination,” Clark said.

Clark and others said facets of the project were determined from the beginning, giving others no real chance to compete.

“There has been no transparency in this process, and it appears to have been rigged from the beginning in backroom discussions between the OJA director, a lobbyist and a state senator,” said Sterling Zearley, executive director of Oklahoma Public Employees Association, a state employee group.

Zearley's group opposes most efforts to privatize state services because they result in fewer state employees.

Christian declined to comment Monday.

Coates said he and Atwood had no influence on the awarding of the contract. He said criticism is coming from groups that are “sour” about their failed bids.

“There were no shenanigans that went on with this process,” Coates said. “I did not attempt to influence in any way other than trying to help us figure out a solution to our adjudicated youth.”

The buildings

The city of Ada will sell bonds to finance the $27 million, 144-bed juvenile offender academy campus there.

Rite of Passage will operate the campus, which will house juvenile offenders who already have been in conventional centers and are preparing to integrate back into society.

The center will create about 110 private-sector jobs in Ada, according to a news release from the Ada Jobs Foundation.

No state employees will work there.

The contract also calls for a 56-bed maximum-security detention center to be added to an existing detention center in Tecumseh.

A Pottawatomie County-based authority will partner with the city of Ada to finance an additional $5 million for the Tecumseh center.

State employees will work there.

The Tecumseh center is expected to replace the problematic L.E. Rader Center in Sand Springs, which is expected to close soon.

The contract is to be signed Monday.

The Ada Youth Academy Authority will get $10 million a year to operate the juvenile center.

The new buildings are expected to begin operating in summer 2012.

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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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