Two members of the Department of Human Services' nine-member governing commission resigned Wednesday amid concerns about conflicts of interest.
The resignation of Commissioner Steven Dow, of Tulsa, came one day after he was publicly reprimanded by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.
He was reprimanded for serving as a DHS commissioner at the same time he was the unpaid chief executive officer of the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, a nonprofit agency that contracts with DHS to provide day care and child education services.
Commissioner Anne Roberts, of Norman, also resigned, telling The Oklahoman that she read about Dow's reprimand and became concerned she might have a similar conflict of interest.
Roberts serves as director of legislative affairs of Integris Health, a corporation that offers child care services subsidized by DHS.
Gov. Mary Fallin issued a statement Wednesday saying she has accepted both resignations.
“Both Steven Dow and Anne Roberts are dedicated public servants who have poured countless hours into their roles at the Department of Human Services,” Fallin said in a prepared statement.
“Their work on the Pinnacle Plan, for example, will help to ensure that a new wave of reforms can be implemented at DHS that better care for children in state custody.”
Dow and Roberts, both appointed to the commission by then-Gov. Brad Henry, worked the past several months to help settle a federal class-action lawsuit and on developing the Pinnacle Plan.
The plan addresses 15 areas to improve DHS's child welfare services, including caseloads, number of placements and recruitment of foster homes, and calls for a series of changes that include hiring 200 child welfare workers and 40 supervisors, recruiting 1,000 traditional foster families, granting pay raises to foster parents and child welfare workers, and eliminating the use of state shelters for young abused and neglected children.
The Ethics Commission ruled that Dow had a conflict of interest because the Community Action Project operates before-school and after-school day care, as well as child education centers and contracts with DHS to provide services to low-income children.
Roberts, appointed to the commission in 2010, said she was concerned the same ruling could be applied to her because Integris also has child care services subsidized by DHS.
“I sure don't want there to be any negative feelings about anything,” Roberts said. “DHS is going through so much; I want to make sure I don't cause any heartburn with anybody. I'm still very committed to the mission of DHS. I'm really supportive of especially the Pinnacle Plan and all the great work they're doing around child welfare. I feel like it's in good hands if I go.”
Dow, appointed to the commission in 2009, at first didn't plan to resign, saying Henry's legal staff saw no problem with his being on the commission and serving as executive director of the Community Action Project, a post he's held since 1992.
He said he wrestled with stepping down from the commission.
“It was not an easy decision,” Dow said.
“The amount of time and effort that I've put in to try and bring about reforms has been substantial, and I don't believe the work of the department is through. I don't like to walk away from something before the job is done. But in this particular case, the choice was either to walk away from the job before it was done at DHS, to walk away from my position at CAP or to be inviolation of an ethics rule as interpreted by the Ethics Commission.”
Dow said he was aware that an anonymous complaint was filed against him in June when he questioned a DHS recommendation to require significant increases in the child care co-pay that clients of DHS would have to pay in order to receive child care services.
Dow wrote in his resignation letter to Fallin that he was surprised by the Ethics Commission's findings, but “insofar as the Ethics Commission is designated in the Oklahoma Constitution as the arbiter of the rules, I feel compelled to respect its decision. It is critical that the public have everyconfidence in DHS, and I do not want my serving to cause any distraction from accomplishing that objective.”
State Rep. Jason Nelson, who headed up a four-member House of Representatives panel that worked closely with Dow and Roberts, said their departures are unfortunate.
“It seems Commissioner Dow went out of his way to avoid any conflicts so the news is even more disappointing,” said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. “Steven and Anne are exactly the kind of volunteer public servants we need more of, and I'm sorry to see them leave the commission. Because of the relevant experiences both Steven and Anne brought to the commission, it made them extremely effective in helping prevent an ill-advised trial in the Children's Rights class-action lawsuit and in helping craft the first-of-its-kind plan to reform our child welfare system under the unique settlement agreement in the lawsuit.”