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Former health department chief pleads guilty

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The former commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Health pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy to sign false time reports for one of two former deputy health commissioners who also face state charges.

Dr. Jerry Nida, 67, received a three-year deferred prison sentence and was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service. An agreement with prosecutors also called for his testimony against former deputy commissioners Roger Pirrong and Brent VanMeter at a preliminary hearing.

Pirrong, 67, is accused of collecting $352,000 in state pay by pretending to be a full-time state employee when he was rarely at work because of poor health. He and VanMeter, 47, also are accused of conspiring to falsify his time sheets.

Pirrong, who has had a series of strokes, was paid about $88,000 a year prior to his retirement in April 2000.

In pleading guilty, Nida wrote that he signed some time sheets for Pirrong between January 1995 and July 1998 without checking their accuracy.

``I had reason to know that they were not accurate and Mr. Pirrong did not correct them,'' Nida wrote.

Nida, who faced up to 10 years in prison, testified that he began to feel so uncomfortable about approving the time sheets that he stopped, and VanMeter took over that task.

Nida also testified that he considered forcing Pirrong to retire, but was worried that the Legislature might cut the department's budget. He said Pirrong had a special relationship with the Legislature, and was good friends with Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester.

``I was intimidated by legislative members,'' Nida said. ``I felt like if I did not treat him specially there would be consequences, not for me personally, but for the department.''

VanMeter was convicted last year of seeking a bribe from a nursing home owner and was sentenced to three years in prison.

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