Health Department employees didn't have rights violated when fired

Friday, September 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Official rules against employees' appeals of firings

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A Merit Protection Commission official has ruled against nine former Oklahoma Department of Health employees who appealed their firings in the wake of the agency's nursing home scandal.

The appeals were dismissed by James L. Howard, executive director of the commission, The Daily Oklahoman reported for Friday's editions.

The employees alleged, among other things, that they were discriminated against because of their Democratic Party affiliations, age, gender or other factors, the Oklahoman reported.

Some argued that the state Health Board did not have the authority to ratify the appointment of acting Health Department director Jerry Regier, who fired all nine unclassified employees.

Howard concluded that the commission doesn't have the jurisdiction to overturn actions by Gov. Frank Keating, Regier or the nine members of the Health Board.

Doyle Carper, a former $87,936-a-year deputy commissioner for local health services was among those appealing his dismissal.

Three so-called "ghost employees," people who held positions at the agency but apparently did little or no work for their pay, also appealed. They were Rebecca Lane, wife of former state Sen.

Jim E. Lane; former state Rep. Gary York and LeFlore County resident Frederick Joe Pierce.

Howard also rejected an appeal by John B. Engelbert, former administrator of local health departments in Johnston, Love and Murray counties in southern Oklahoma.

Dismissed appeals also involved fired Health Department employees Karen S. "Suzie" Carper, the daughter of Doyle Carper; Barbara K. Altstatt; Karen S. Verner and Linda J. Lopez.

Altstatt, Verner and Lopez had nursing home inspection and regulation ties to ousted Deputy Commissioner Brent VanMeter.

VanMeter's May 2 arrest triggered a crisis that has led to the firings or resignations of 31 Health Department employees and prompted a major reorganization of the agency. Altstatt was VanMeter's executive assistant.

The commission hasn't ruled on an appeal by VanMeter, who is accused of soliciting a bribe from Wewoka nursing home owner Jim Smart. VanMeter is scheduled to go on trial in federal court on Oct. 10.

Regier said he was pleased with the commission's response and denied the terminations were a political witch hunt.

". . . we are changing the Health Department and restoring accountability and integrity to this vital state agency," he said.

"I don't even know the political affiliations of most of the individuals fired."

Attempts to reach the dismissed employees who filed appeals were unsuccessful.

The employees can appeal their cases to the nine agency commissioners, and then to a district court.