Coffee ‘frustrated’ that M.E. fallout impedes reform

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 15-Jun-2010

Oklahoma Senate President Pro Temp Glenn Coffee today (Tuesday, June 15) became the first high-ranking official to answer questions from reporters concerning new controversy touching the state Medical Examiner’s office.

A mid-afternoon session in the Senate lounge at the Capitol was the first press “availability” by a state leader heeding requests for comments on the ME office’s recent difficulties. Scandal now swirls around a trio of legislators allegedly involved in horse-trading to create a transition administrative post at the agency, and dictation of its first occupant.

Controversy exploded this month after revelations in stories for The Oklahoman that state Rep. Randy Terrill, a Republican representing parts of south Oklahoma City and Moore, sought to create a plum state job for a Democratic legislator in return for her decision to leave elective office. That departure was allegedly designed to clear the way for a Republican House member handpicked by Terrill to run for the vacated Senate seat.

Sen. Debbe Leftwich, the Democrat, and state Rep. Mike Christian, the Republican and Terrill ally, are also under investigation. Both of them denied wrongdoing in interviews with Nolan Clay, an award-winning journalist and respected investigative reporter at the state’s largest newspaper. Terrill has avoided answering Clay’s questions. In recent days, Clay reported eyewitness testimony that Terrill directed the salary level for a transition officer, and that Leftwich would get the job.

David Prater, Oklahoma County District Attorney, says evidence indicates Leftwich was to receive the “transition coordinator” job in return for vacating the Senate. The “transition” post was created and financed to avoid conflict with legal provisions preventing tax-financed employment of legislators sooner than two years after leaving the Legislature.

Leftwich’s departure, announced on the last day of the 2010 legislative session, surprised most Capitol observers. In his encounter with reporters, Coffee said he discussed Leftwich’s future with her in a conversation on the Senate floor at mid-session. She had not at that point decided whether to seek reelection, Coffee said.

Coffee returned to the state Capitol today from a trip with his brothers and father, telling reporters he had been out of contact and learned of the controversy in a message from an aide just days ago.

In the Legislature’s “frenetic” closing days, Coffee said he devoted energy to workers comp reforms, a temporary “fix” of the intangible tax levy worrying state business leaders, and implementation of the budget accord. While he signed the Conference Committee Report for the bill he co-sponsored with Speaker Chris Benge, Coffee said he was not involved in all aspects of closing negotiations.

Early in June, Governor Brad Henry vetoed Senate Bill 738 and another measure – House Bill 2486 – touching operations at the state Medical Examiner’s office. It would have reorganized the office, implementing reforms and efficiencies advocated by Henry and others. However, it also would have created that “transition coordinator” at $80,000 a year. Coffee today said he was not involved in dictating or directing creation of the office, its first occupant or the pay scale.

When he vetoed it, Governor Henry said, “S.B. 738 contained many important reforms to help get the medical examiner’s office back on track, but buried within the legislation was a highly-paid, new position that is entirely unnecessary in the operation of the agency.  Because of that fatal flaw, I had no choice but to veto the bill.”

Gov. Henry urged the governing board of the ME’s office to administratively adopt as many reforms as possible. Coffee said he hoped that approach would prove possible. In today’s encounter with reporters, Coffee regretted that “recent allegations of impropriety had put a stop to the reforms” he and others envisioned for the ME’s office.

The Oklahoma City Republican is “frustrated” that two years of work to improve the ME’s office had been forestalled. Sen. Coffee said allegations of deal-making “certainly” made the chief executive’s negative verdict understandable.

CapitolBeatOK asked Sen. Coffee if the incident could make the case for longer deliberation over major changes late in every session. He replied, “Things always move quickly at the end of the session.” Coffee believes it would be “very difficult” to build more time into the process.

He also pointed to a individuals who could serve in the envisioned transition post, and said the legislative outcome and resulting controversy might be a prime example of the “sausage making” aspects of law-making.

In response to a request for comment from CapitolBeatOK, Speaker of the House Chris Benge, a Tulsa Republican, emailed this comment:

“We have been working for years to get the Medical Examiner’s office back on track and to restore public confidence in the agency. I believe the move to Edmond, where the office will work closely with the world-class Forensic Science Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, is needed to give the office a fresh start. The legislation, and the language it contained, was nothing more than an effort to reform and improve the Medical Examiner’s office.

“Throughout the legislative process, many different people have input and ideas with regard to specific legislation. This was the case with S.B. 738, which is a normal part of the process. I have no reason to believe that input was meant to do anything but help achieve the goal of reforming the Medical Examiner’s office.

“As outlined in the bill, the hiring decision for the position of Transition Coordinator would have been a personnel issue that rested with the chief administrator and the board.

“I am term-limited, but I hope the next Legislature continues to make improving this agency a priority and works to put some of these administrative changes into statute in order to get the office on solid footing moving forward under new leadership.”

In his meeting with reporters today, Senator Coffee said Speaker Benge’s “statement is consistent with my recollections.” Asked if he was critical of D.A. Prater’s decision to investigate, Coffee said, “it’s his right to make that decision.” He encouraged cooperation with Prater’s investigation.