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More arrests expected as investigation unfolds, officials say

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Years of public corruption that led to the jailing of a deputy health commissioner could have created "life-threatening" conditions for some nursing home residents, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson says.

Edmondson also said Wednesday that a federal-state probe of state regulation of nursing homes is "in no way complete" and more arrests are expected.

He commented at a news conference at the same time Deputy Commissioner Brent VanMeter was being brought before a U.S. magistrate on a federal bribery charge.

No other arrests had been made by Wednesday night, the FBI and prosecutors said. But Edmondson predicted a lengthy investigation and said "there will be additional charges against additional people."

Van Meter, 46, was charged with accepting a $1,000 bribe to help qualify a nursing home operator for federal funds. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Van Meter was released on his own recognizance. Defense attorney Mack Martin had no comment on a plea. Van Meter did not respond to telephone messages left at his home Wednesday night by The Associated Press.

Magistrate Valerie Couch set Van Meter's preliminary hearing for May 10.

Van Meter was arrested Tuesday as investigators searched six locations, including the Health Department, the defendant's home and private businesses. Several boxes were removed from Van Meter's home.

Van Meter had been in charge of his agency since April 24, when Commissioner J.R. Nida went on medical leave after surgery. Officials said Nida was not a target of the investigation.

Van Meter and seven other Health Department workers were suspended with pay as the investigation unfolded. Officials said the other suspensions were not disciplinary, but were ordered to allow the probe to continue in their areas of the department without interference.

The names of employees suspended along with Van Meter were not released.

The FBI, which began the investigation in 1996, alleges that Van Meter solicited and accepted a payoff to qualify a nursing home operator for federal subsidies.

Edmondson's Medicaid Fraud Unit cooperated in the probe. He said charges could be filed against more Health Department workers as well as nursing home operators.

Federal prosecutor Joe Heaton said no other arrests had been made, but he would not say whether any were pending.

An FBI affidavit quotes a taped telephone conversation on April 17 in which a nursing home operator asked Van Meter to falsify Health Department records to generate an extra $50,000 in income for the nursing home. The affidavit said Van Meter asked for 2percent of the $50,000 -- or $1,000.

Edmondson said the case involved not just financial fraud, but "the quality of care" provided by some nursing homes allegedly allowed to violate rules with impunity.

"Those rules are there to protect the quality of care," Edmondson said.

Gov. Frank Keating characterized the case as "raw, unadulterated corruption." "This is intolerable," Keating said. He said taxpayers need to be assured that "their tax dollars are being prudently handled and their loved ones are being cared for."

Jerry Regier, a member of Keating's cabinet, was named acting director of the Health Department. He met with about 90 Health Department employees and asked anybody who could help the investigation to come forward.

"This puts potentially at risk some of the federal funds that Oklahoma receives," Regier said.

Jay Gregory, chairman of the state Health Board, said the events had "created tremendous turmoil, conflict and chaos" at the agency, which regulates the nursing home industry. "We will find opportunity out of this chaos," he said.

An affidavit by FBI Agent Mark D. Seyler also discussed trips Van Meter made to a simulcast betting location where he placed bets on horses during office hours and one time called his secretary to take $500 out of a jar in his office and bring it to him.

Don Hudman, executive director of the Area Wide Agency on Aging, said his organization and other advocates for the aging had complained for years that Van Meter had been a defender of nursing homes and ignored legitimate problems in the industry.

Hudman said there is "a long, ugly history" of Van Meter siding with the Oklahoma Nursing Home Association to kill legislation sought by advocates for nursing home patients.

"No amount of outcry by family members, advocates and ombudsmen has deterred the shameful and deplorable conditions that have gone unchecked at specific nursing homes in Oklahoma," Hudman said. "The current investigation is a long time coming."
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