GRAND jury issues final report

Friday, July 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A state grand jury probe of the Oklahoma State Department of Health ended Thursday with a final report that said taxpayers were cheated by the hiring of ``patronage, ill-qualified or non-working employees.''

The jury issued two additional, sealed Health Department indictments on its final day. In all, jurors indicted 31 people. Twelve indictments targeted 15 Health Department employees.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson said the report ends the ``ghost employee'' phase of the investigation. But he said another grand jury will be empaneled this fall to probe other charges involved in the Health Department scandal.

He predicted the state investigation will lead to prison terms for some employees.

The scandal broke in May 2000 when Deputy Health Commissioner Brent VanMeter was arrested on federal bribery charges. He and nursing home operator Jim Smart were convicted and received prison sentences.

In investigating employee practices at the health agency, the grand jury issued 302 subpoenas, heard testimony from 150 witnesses and received 1,242 exhibits.

The report cited blatant disregard for state law and policies on the part of many employees and officials of the health agency.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Goodspeed, director of the multicounty grand jury unit, estimated the state lost between $900,000 and $1 million because of false travel claims and work paid for but not performed by health agency employees.

More importantly, Edmondson said, was the cost to the public of inadequate regulation of nursing homes and other areas.

``There is no question the problems we saw impeded the quality of health care in the state of Oklahoma,'' he said.

He said the work of the grand jury should go a long way toward restoring public confidence in nursing home regulation.

Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Simms, who presided over the proceedings, said it was the hardest-working jury he has seen in 50 years as a lawyer.

The jury's report was critical of influence exercised by unnamed legislators in the hiring of Health Department employees. It said it was common knowledge ``that certain legislators directed Health Department officials and supervisors to take, or refrain from taking, specific actions and to pay political appointees a higher salary regardless of their qualifications.''

It said employees of the agency failed to report violations of law because they feared reprisals, creating an abusive environment at the agency that affected a large part of the work force.

``The failure of OSDH officials and supervisors to hold employees accountable for work attendance and leave use resulted in an organizational culture ripe with favoritism for some and inequity for others,'' the jurors wrote. ``This result is a direct violation of public policy stated in the Oklahoma Personnel Act and the Ethics Act.''

The report said delivery of services by the agency was ``significantly compromised'' by the use of taxpayer money for ``salaries of patronage, ill-qualified or non-working employees.''

Among other things, the report recommended beefed-up internal auditing at the agency and appointment of a committee to see that agency policies are updated and followed.

Among those indicted in the long probe were former Deputy Health Commissioner Roger Pirrong on charges of obtaining money by false pretense.

Former state Sen. Jim E. Lane and his wife, Rebecca, were accused of similar charges.