FORMER commissioner indicted

Saturday, July 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Four multicounty grand jury indictments were unsealed in district court Friday naming seven former employees of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, including former OSDH Commissioner Jerry R. Nida.

Nida, 67, was accused of conspiracy to sign false employee time reports for former Deputy Commissioner Roger C. Pirrong, who was named in a second indictment.

Nida's attorney, Robert W. Cole, said Nida has spent years as a public servant and has done a wonderful job for the state of Oklahoma.

``This is the single blemish that appears on his record, and I'm optimistic that we're going to be able to remove it,'' Cole said.

The defense attorney pointed out that Nida signed thousands of sheets of paper and also had a leave of absence from the Health Department.

``You have to remember he was quite ill. He had a kidney removed during this time,'' Cole said.

Two former deputy commissioners were indicted, including Brent VanMeter, who was accused of two conspiracy counts _ one in the Pirrong case and another for allowing OSDH employee Makala Bannister to keep a job when she was a full-time dental student.

VanMeter is serving a federal prison term on a bribery conviction. His arrest in May 2000 highlighted a state and federal investigation of nursing home regulation.

Pirrong's attorney, Carl Hughes said he feared his client, who has been in poor health in the past five years, would suffer another stroke.

``I don't think this is right,'' Hughes said. ``You've got a bunch of honest people here that are getting bullied around like this. It's pathetic. Mr. Pirrong earned every dime that he made.''

VanMeter was also named in a second conspiracy indictment unsealed Friday, along with Walker.

Also named in indictments unsealed Friday were Doyle Carper, a former deputy commissioner; George Dowell, former administrator for LeFlore, Haskell and Latimer counties; Dr. James Walker, former Consumer Protection Division director; and Karen ``Suzie'' Carper, former employee of the Office of Rural Health.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson said a fifth indictment could be unsealed as early as next week.

An 11-month grand jury probe of the health agency ended Thursday with a final report that said taxpayers were cheated by the hiring of patronage employees that were ill-qualified and did not earn their pay.

The grand jury has indicted a total of 31 people. Twelve indictments targeted 15 Health Department employees.

Gov. Frank Keating said he was disturbed by the latest round of indictments.

``I congratulate the grand jury for its thorough and courageous work and look forward to getting this sad chapter of Oklahoma history behind us,'' Keating said.

Edmondson said the report ended the ``ghost employee'' phase, but the investigation would continue into bribery allegations when a new jury is impaneled this fall.

All of those named in indictments except VanMeter appeared before a judge and professed their innocence.

A one-count indictment against Nida said a conspiracy between the former health commissioner and VanMeter allowed Pirrong, 67, to stay on as a full-time employee ``without accurately accounting for his absences knowing that he would receive moneys to which he was not entitled.''

Carper and Dowell were accused of conspiracy to allow Jim E. Lane, Vernon Johnson, Rebecca Lane and Frederick Joe Pierce to keep their jobs and receive state funds to which they were not entitled.

The indictments charge that Carper and Dowell signed false employee time reports and travel claims for OSDH employees.

Karen Carper, daughter of Doyle Carper, is accused of diversion of state funds.

Doyle Carper told reporters he had worked hard for the state his whole life.

``And if I've done anything wrong I sure don't know what it was.''