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Signing of contract tied to Oklahoma senator-lobbyist affair delayed

The Office of Juvenile Affairs accepted a request from Oklahoma Senate leaders to delay the signing of a contract for new juvenile centers after allegations that a senator and lobbyist who are having an extramarital affair played a role in the contract bidding process.
BY JOHN ESTUS and ANN KELLEY Modified: December 7, 2010 at 9:30 am •  Published: December 4, 2010

A multimillion state contract signing was halted Friday amid allegations that the bidding process was rigged to favor a client of a lobbyist having an extramarital affair with a state senator.

Senate leaders on Thursday asked Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian to delay Monday's signing of a $10 million-a-year contract for new juvenile centers. Christian agreed to delay the signing one month so the Senate can investigate the bidding process.

The contract was to go to an Ada group working with Rite of Passage, a private juvenile academy operator that hired lobbyist Haley Atwood.

The Oklahoman revealed this week that Atwood, 29, and Sen. Harry Coates, 60, were having an extramarital affair at a time they were helping Rite of Passage win the contract.

Failed bidders welcomed the contract signing delay.

“Any truly independent investigation is going to determine that this whole … bidding process needs to be thrown out and we need to start over again,” said Brian Costello, president of Avalon Correctional Services, a rejected bidder.

Greg Pierce, chairman of the Ada Youth Academy Authority, said his group is disappointed about the delay, but they're going to continue to compete for the project.

“We've worked hard on this, and have done nothing wrong,” Pierce said.

Investigation continues

Coates, who is a proponent of Rite of Passage's juvenile academy model, was not in Thursday's meeting between Senate leaders and Office of Juvenile Affairs officials.

Coates said he spoke late Friday to Senate Pro Tem-elect Brian Bingman, who is leading a Senate investigation into how the contract was awarded.

Coates said Bingman told him he will ask the attorney general's office to review the allegations surrounding the process used to award the contract.

“I said I'm good with that, and I'll provide any information,” Coates said.

On Thursday, an assistant attorney general told a state employee group upset with the bidding process that he had made a phone call to the agency overseeing the contract award and found no reason to investigate further.

Through his spokesman, Bingman declined to answer questions about the Senate investigation.

House Speaker-elect Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said in a statement: “I support the agency's decision to delay awarding the contract because an action of this magnitude should not occur under a cloud of doubt. Any decisions concerning this issue directly impact the juveniles served.”

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