You Heard it Here First: OPEA Breaks Story on OJA Bidding Fiasco

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association, in an article placed on their website, first blew the whistle on the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs and their intent to award a contract to a private company.

The announcement by Director Gene Christian to award a request for proposal (RFP) to the City of Ada and the Rite of Passage corporation was met with concerns from OPEA.

“OPEA is very concerned over this RFP process,” OPEA executive director Sterling Zearley said. “The state’s contracting statutes are designed to be fair and not give a bidder an advantage. Yet allegations of collusion among legislators, lobbyists and agency officials indicate there may have been a predetermined outcome.”

According to the story run in the Oklahoman, Senator Harry Coates is reported to have been involved in a romantic affair with lobbyist Haley Atwood. Together, they worked to steer this lucrative contract to a private company. The company, Rite of Passage, hired Atwood for consulting work. (To view the full article click here.)

Coates denied the allegations saying, “That’s a private matter and has nothing to do with the project.”

OPEA has been engaged in an 18 month battle to keep the Rader Center open and had defeated a measure to issue an RFP for private management of a new facility placed before the OJA Board in 2009. The Board later reversed their decision in a 4-3 vote after Director Christian said he had been pressured by legislators. The newspaper reports that Christian had been involved in discussions with legislators as well as the private company during this time which may have contributed to the decision to review the vote on the RFP.

The article links Christian, Atwood and Coates in private meetings as well sometimes attending joint meetings about the juvenile center project.

According to information discovered by OPEA, a Norman firm, Architects in Partnership (AIP), paid for and was then reimbursed from Coates’ campaign fund for a flight to Denver to tour Rite of Passage’s academy near there. AIP owner Ben Graves said he asked his longtime friend, Harry Coates, to become involved in the project. Graves is quoted as saying he knew Coates would be helpful in “changing the way Oklahoma treats its juvenile offenders,” and he thinks the new Ada campus should be named after the senator.

“First of all, what does Ben Graves and AIP know about the juvenile justice system in Oklahoma?” questioned Zearley. “Last time we checked, AIP did not provide services to juveniles nor do they represent anyone who does. Secondly, AIP stands to gain substantially from this project as they will be designing the $27 million campus in Ada.”

OPEA believes the proposed bid was nonresponsive to the RFP for a secure facility which was issued by OJA and the Department of Central Services. The RFP states, “Over time the general characteristics of OJA’s youth have fundamentally changed. The Office of Juvenile Affairs finds that there is a need for dedicated secure beds – especially maximum secure. The existing facilities are not designed to efficiently treat youth that are categorized as needing a maximum secure placement.”

In spite of the expressed need in the RFP for secure beds, the Rite of Passage proposal is a non-secure charter school. Over the life of the RFP, the agency’s needs have mysteriously changed from secure beds to a non-secure charter school.

In addition, OPEA is concerned with the contracting process. Traditionally, when an award is announced, all documents become available for public scrutiny. However, Christian has announced an “intent to award” and is not allowing the public to review the documents or contract prior to the agency signing the contract on December 6. The purpose of Oklahoma’s purchasing law is to procure the best contracts for the citizens of Oklahoma and allow transparency in the process. OJA is purposely circumventing the intent of the law by not providing an opportunity for public review prior to the state committing to the contract.

In a press release on Wednesday, OPEA called for the OJA Board to stop the signing of the contract with the City of Ada until a thorough investigation of the allegations can be undertaken.

“This transaction has not been transparent since its inception and to move forward with the signing of a contract while questions about the impartiality of the process would conflict with OJA’s obligation to pursue the common good for the citizens of Oklahoma,” said Zearley. “The questions about legislators, lobbyists, state agency administrators and private firms using their prestige and influence to give a certain bidder an advantage indicates there may have been a predetermined outcome and one in which the Attorney General may need to be involved in investigating.”

Related News