Acting health director fires 'ghost workers'

Wednesday, June 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Nine state Department of Health employees, including two former lawmakers and one of their wives, have either
resigned or been fired following an investigation into "ghost employment" at the department, acting Director Jerry Regier said

The action followed an internal probe into the "gross misuse of state employment at the Department of Health" that Regier said may
have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper payroll expenses during at least the past 10 years.

"One of the basic tenets of any employment is to show up for work," Regier said. But he said many of the dismissed employees were on the state payroll without any apparent duties or

The Health Department workers were paid between $20,000 and $50,000 a year and some did not turn in payroll time cards for up to a decade, Regier said.

One of the fired workers, Vernon Johnson of LeFlore County, operates his own business, Regier said. Makala Bannister of Oklahoma City, who resigned from her Health Department job, is a full-time student, he said.

In a separate case unrelated to the dismissals, Regier said former state Sen. Buck Dendy of Pryor, who served in the Legislature between 1954 and 1958, was hired by the Health
Department in 1979 at the age of 76 and remained on the payroll until 1996, when he died at the age of 92.

"It's definitely a lapse of management policy," Regier said. He said policy changes are being implemented to assure that payroll positions and expenses, including salaries and retirement annuities, "are needed, necessary and fully supervised."

"We're going to make sure that the monies we're entrusted with are used wisely," Regier said.

The personnel actions were announced little more than one month after former acting Health Department Commissioner Brent VanMeter was indicted by a federal grand jury. VanMeter is accused of taking a $1,000 bribe from nursing home owner James Smart, who also has been indicted.

Gov. Frank Keating responded to the personnel actions by describing the Health Department as "a hiring engine."

"The problem is the state Department of Health has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the state Legislature," Keating said.

"...Whatever the state Legislature tells them to do -- whatever powerful state senators tell them to do they do, and that is simply
unacceptable," the governor said.

But Senate President Pro Tem Stratton Taylor, D-Claremore, said Keating should accept blame for the problems because he oversees
the Health Department.

"It's time he took responsibility for the problems in his administration, instead of trying to shift the blame to someone else," Taylor said.

Among those fired was Doyle Carper, former deputy commissioner of local health services whom Regier said supervised many of the
paid positions. Following his termination, Carper volunteered information about payroll irregularities, Regier said.

A second former deputy commissioner, Roger Pirrong, retired effective April 30.

Jim E. Lane, a former state senator and Senate majority leader from Idabel, retired from the Health Department last month. Lane
was on the department payroll for 10 years at an annual salary of $50,000, Regier said.

"There was a period that time cards were not turned in," he said.

Regier said he has asked the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System to hold off on processing retirement papers for Pirrong and Lane "until the department reviews, recalculates and re-certifies" their work records.

In addition, Regier said he has fired Lane's wife, Rebecca Lane of Pittsburg County, former state Rep. Gary York of Grady County,
and Frederick Joe Pierce of LeFlore County.

Another Health Department worker, Jon K. Doolen of Atoka County, has resigned, he said.

Neither the Lanes nor York returned telephone messages left by The Associated Press at their homes or with their mobile telephones.

Regier said the results of Health Department probe were turned over to federal and state law enforcement officials.