Attorney accuses mental health services provider of misleading judges

Thursday, December 25th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A mental health services provider is misleading federal appeals court judges about possible impropriety by an Oklahoman City federal judge who is presiding over a $34 million dispute, an attorney alleges.

Andrew Tevington made the accusation against Southeastern Oklahoma Family Services Inc. in a new filing at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

The provider agency has petitioned the Denver-based court to order U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton to further disclose his relationships Oklahoma Health Care Authority officials and attorneys in the case.

Heaton dismissed a $34 million verdict that a jury returned in favor of Southeastern Oklahoma Family Services.

Steve Holden, attorney for Southeastern, contended in a motion that Tevington and Heaton have a long-standing close family and social relationship, which the judge did not sufficiently disclose. Another concern was that Tevington is godfather to the son of the judge.

In his filing, Tevington told the appellate judges that before the trial he had disclosed to an opposing attorney that he had practiced law with Heaton before he became a judge, The Oklahoman reported.

Tevington also told the judges he had informed that attorney, Stephen Capron, that he, Tevington, ``was considered Judge Heaton's older son's godfather''

The company sued officials of the health care authority, who oversee the Medicaid program. The provider alleged the officials retaliated against them for questioning the method of distributing reimbursements.

Executives of the health care authority have urged the judges of the higher court to deny the provider agency's petition for a writ of mandamus against Heaton. A writ of mandamus is an order from a higher court to a lower court.

If granted, the writ would require Heaton to conduct a hearing for disclosing his relationships related to the case, including those with Tevington and state Rep. Ray Vaughn, brother of Medicaid Director Dr. Lynn Mitchell, who is a defendant.

A jury in Heaton's Oklahoma City court awarded the provider $34 million in damages in April against three top officials of the health care authority. Heaton set aside the verdict in August and ordered a new trial, which is set for next year.

A hearing is needed to determine if impropriety was involved in Heaton's decision to set aside the verdict, the provider argued in its filing.

The agency's petition for a writ did not refer to Tevington. The agency's dispute is with Heaton.

This week, Heaton chose not to respond to the higher court's invitation to comment on the southeastern agency's request for a writ.

But attorneys for Mike Fogarty, chief executive of the authority, and for Terrie Fritz, director of behavioral health services for the authority and for Dana Brown, the authority's now-retired legislative lobbyist, have urged the appellate judges to deny the petition.

Tevington also said Holden has falsely implied that Heaton was untruthful in disclosing his relationship with Tevington.

Heaton said he sufficiently disclosed his relationship with Tevington and has refused to remove himself from the case.

The judge didn't disclose his relationship until after the trial and until after the southeastern agency asked him about it, the agency argued.