Would problems at Health Department have come to light sooner if Oklahoma whistleblower law was stronger? (Capitol Update)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

whistle blowerThe multi-county grand jury issued a scathing report this week on the Oklahoma State Health Department (OSHD) showing mismanagement over a period of several years. Upon reading the news accounts of the grand jury report, I had to believe the grand jury had gotten it wrong. I’ve known former Commissioner Cline for many years and just couldn’t see this happening on his watch. But I’ve read the full report, and it is thorough and well documented. It exposes how any organization, in this case a state agency, can run aground by trying to avoid exposure for poor procedures and mistakes, compounding the initial errors, and finally attempting to avoid unpleasant consequences. Real people that depend on OSDH, including vulnerable children, health agencies and state employees got hurt.

The report’s conclusion contains these stunning comments: “There are no winners as a result of this exhaustive investigation – only losers. Senior Leadership, who no doubt wanted only the best for public health in Oklahoma, resigned in disgrace due to their mismanagement of a state agency on a public stage. Taxpayers have lost trust in their state government for letting this crisis develop and for compounding it with wasted tax dollars and unnecessary layoffs. It may lose federal funding as grant audits loom over the coming months due to the gross mismanagement of the Department. Last, 198 Oklahomans have lost their jobs – for no good reason.”

The grand jury found no provable evidence of criminality but pointed out some limited, specific changes that should be made to the criminal statutes to cover, specifically, failure to create and report unrestricted funds on hand to the legislature. Notably, the truth about OSDH’s fiscal condition began coming to light when the legislative liaison, the Chief Financial Officer, and the Chief Operating Officer, after numerous internal warnings, set up a risky clandestine meeting with a non-majority of the Board of Health and laid out for them the financial situation as they knew it. In less than two weeks the Commissioner and Senior Deputy Commissioner resigned. Kudos for honest auditing and honest lobbying. One wonders how much sooner this tragedy would have come to light if the Oklahoma whistle blower law were stronger. It might have saved 198 jobs and the Department’s reputation.

The good news is OSDH was never insolvent and no money was stolen or unlawfully spent. $30 million unnecessarily requested and appropriated to the Department is still there unused and available for further appropriation next session. Hopefully, some will be used to restore the unnecessary and misguided elimination of the Child Abuse Prevention Programs and the cuts to the Uncompensated Care Fund. It will be unfortunate if some in politics use this sad chapter to make the overblown “waste and corruption” argument to prevent good and needed services for Oklahomans by OSDH and other state agencies. Yes, incidents like this may have happened before and gone undetected. But strengthening accounting and auditing procedures and protecting whistleblowers would be a better response than slashing budgets on the assumption there must be waste in there somewhere.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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