Former state health official goes on trialhome patient

Wednesday, October 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The prosecution says it will introduce evidence that former Health Department official Brent VanMeter liked to gamble and had a "real desperation" for money when he allegedly accepted a $1,000 bribe from a nursing home operator.

The trial of VanMeter and nursing home operator James Robert Smart of Wewoka began Tuesday in federal district court with the selection of a jury of seven men and five women.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Thompson ruled there was no basis to move the trial, as requested by VanMeter defense attorney Mack Martin. The judge said his questioning of prospective jurors showed there was "simply no prejudicial pretrial effect" from news accounts of the case.

Thompson scheduled oral arguments for Wednesday after sending the jury home with an admonishment not to discuss the case.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon, Arlene Joplin, assistant U.S.

attorney, said evidence would show VanMeter had a propensity for gambling that played a role in his accepting a $1,000 bribe, as alleged by the government.

She said the official had "a real desperation for additional money."

The trial began five months after VanMeter's arrest at the Health Department, the first public knowledge of a scandal that led to the firing or resignation of 30 agency employees.

More than 30 prospective jurors were dismissed during Tuesday's day-long selection process, including many who either had family members in nursing homes or some association with nursing homes or state and federal agencies involved in the investigation.

Van Meter, dressed in a blue suit, appeared relaxed as he gazed intently at prospective jurors the judge was questioning.

A former deputy health commissioner, Van Meter is accused of accepting a bribe from Smart in return for backdating a document so Smart's nursing homes could receive extra federal funds.

The former state official was in charge of nursing home regulation at the time FBI agents arrested him and seized scores of documents.

Taped conversations between VanMeter and others are expected to be the key evidence for the government.

At Tuesday afternoon's hearing, Thompson took under advisement Martin's objection to introduction of evidence that documents had been backdated to the benefit of Smart's enterprises, other than an instance outlined in a May letter.

According to documents filed in the case, tapes the jury will hear contain profanity and explicit sexual references.

Thompson informed jurors about the tapes and questioned them if they had strong objections to gambling. One juror was dismissed by the judge after he said he thought gambling was morally wrong.

The VanMeter case prompted Gov. Frank Keating to appoint Jerry Regier, cabinet secretary, to be interim health commissioner.

Commissioner Jerry Nida was on sick leave when the scandal broke and subsequently resigned.

In addition to the federal probe, the Medicaid Fraud Unit of the office of state Attorney General Drew Edmondson has turned up evidence that led to the indictment of Vernon Ray Johnson of Talihina on 33 felony counts accusing him of receiving money for work he did not perform.

Regier had fired Johnson and several other so-called "ghost employees" in an agency shakeup.

A management report by the Fidelis Group, Inc. predicted additional federal charges would be filed as result of VanMeter's indictment.

FBI agents have testified that wiretaps of VanMeter's conversations produced evidence of shifting nursing home patients to benefit certain nursing home owners.