VanMeter criticizes board for denying his pay complaint

Friday, October 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A former deputy health commissioner openly criticized the acting director of the state Health Department after the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission voted Thursday not to reconsider his complaint about his pay being withheld.

"That action was taken maliciously," Brent VanMeter told reporters after the meeting. "I don't believe he's withheld annual leave payments from anybody else he's dismissed. I'm being singled out."

The commission voted 8-0, upholding its executive director's dismissal of the complaint VanMeter filed in September.

"He's vilified me from the time this whole thing started. I think he has a personal ... dislike for me. That's one of the motivations for him doing this," VanMeter said of Jerry Regier.

VanMeter was in charge of regulating nursing homes when FBI agents arrested him May 2. He is seeking his regular pay for May and his vacation pay of $23,480.

VanMeter said he will ask an Oklahoma County judge to force the Merit Protection Commission to take up his case again.

He also is considering whether to appeal his Oct. 18 bribery conviction. He may wait to decide until after U.S. District Judge Ralph Thompson sentences him.

A federal jury convicted VanMeter of asking for a bribe from Wewoka nursing home owner Jim Smart on April 17. The FBI had tapped VanMeter's cellular phones and secretly recorded the conversation.

Smart also was convicted.

The verdict was the first in the ongoing federal-state investigation into corruption at the Health Department. The judge agreed both VanMeter and Smart may remain free until their sentencing.

VanMeter's pay was withheld because health officials believe VanMeter may have a legal debt to the agency, including for time spent gambling on horses during work hours.

VanMeter does not deny he gambled, but insisted Thursday he deserves his vacation pay because he was a hard worker.

"He was not my supervisor, my employer. He doesn't know what my office hours were. I wasn't on a production line at GM (General Motors)," VanMeter said of Regier.

VanMeter said he was sometimes at the office as early as 6:30 a.m. and sometimes stayed until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. He said he was on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The commission also on Thursday upheld the dismissals of two of those health employees, Linda Lopez and John Engelbert.

Regier said he was pleased with the commission's decisions.

"I would just reiterate that all of these actions that have been taken against employees have been based on very good evidence and reasons," he said. "These certainly have not been done willy-nilly or capriciously and I think that this just confirms that."

The acting director also denied that VanMeter was singled out.

"I think that we did take some action against some of the so-called ghost employees in that we had their retirement held up.

That's the same principle," Regier said.

VanMeter's complaint to the Merit Protection Commission was dismissed on a technicality -- that it was not filed in time. He disputes the conclusion and criticized the commission.

"That's really draconian," he said. "An agency ... created to protect the benefits of thousands of employees shouldn't behave in this manner."