Rule requires agencies to keep contract recommendations secret

Saturday, August 13th 2005, 5:30 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A state Department of Central Services rule allows state agencies and commissions to secretly pick winners of state contracts, even when it involves multi-million-dollar deals requiring a vote in public.

``If it is not a violation of the Open Meeting Law, it certainly is a violation of the spirit of the act,'' Mark Thomas, executive director of the Oklahoma Press Association, said of the DCS rule, which has the force of law.

The existence of the rule came to the surface last week when the fledgling Oklahoma Lottery Commission voted at a public meeting to select ``Vendor A'' as the company that will produce instant and online lottery tickets for the new state lottery.

The name of the company was not disclosed during or immediately after the vote by lottery officials, who said they had been advised they could not legally do so because of the DCS rule.

The process for secretly selecting the vendor began with a closed-door meeting of the lottery panel. When commissioners reconvened in an open meeting, they did not discuss the terms of the contract nor its size _ which turned out to have a $6 million value _ nor the reasons why ``vendor A'' was being chosen over ``Vendor B.''

Officials said the name of the company that would be getting the contract would be posted later on the DCS Web site. No posting was ever made and a DCS official said there apparently was a communication problem with the lottery panel.

After prodding by reporters, the executive director of the lottery, Jim Scroggins, disclosed that Scientific Games was the winner of the $6 million contract, beating out GTECH Corp.

Scroggins and James Orbison, commission chairman, said the DCS rule requiring that the contract winner be kept confidential created an awkward situation when commissioners voted on the issue at a public meeting.

They said they would have preferred to have been able to make an announcement, but were bound by the DCS rule.

The rule in question states that ``agency staff shall not announce or reveal their decision regarding supplier evaluation or recommendation for award to Central Purchasing in any public manner or forum, including board meetings, until Central Purchasing has issued its award of contract.''

Thomas said the situation reminds him of a city council meeting in Oklahoma that followed a closed-door meeting. When the council reconvened in open session, a councilman moved to ``approve what we talked about in there.'' The motion carried unanimously.

Later, Thomas said, the minutes of the meeting reflected that the council had approved a series of pay raises for city officials.

``In almost all cases, they want to get the deal done before the public finds out what they have done,'' said the OPA official.

``It seems to me that governmental agencies that depend on the trust of the public _ and especially a new agency like the Lottery Commission _ would want to be as open and forthright and forthcoming with as much information as possible in order not only to get the public trust but to keep the public trust,'' Thomas said.

Betty Cairns, state purchasing director at the DCS, said one of the purposes of the rule is to make sure a state agency is financially able to fulfill its obligations under a contract.

The Lottery Commission was advised to follow the DCS rule by David Kinney, assistant attorney general, according to Charlie Price, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Drew Edmondson.

Price said Edmondson ``has a long record of support for openness in government and the Open Records Law'' but the DCS rule is in effect and Edmondson's office has no choice but to adhere to it.

``Our attorneys don't have the luxury of determining the reason behind a particular rule or law,'' he said. ``Their job is to advise their clients to follow the law.''

Neither Price nor Cairns knew how long the DCS rule has been in effect.

Thomas said the rule is a subterfuge and defeats the purpose of the Open Records Law, ``which is to facilitate the public's understanding of governmental agencies. How is the public to understand a discussion in secret that results in an anonymous public vote?

``I would hope that the Legislature and the governor would take a look at this instance and other instances like this and say this is not in the public's interest and should be changed.''