Oklahoma legislator cuts ties with company that runs group homes for state
A state senator with sway over public funding for human services also has worked as a consultant for a troubled private company that runs state-contracted group homes for disturbed youth and developmentally disabled adults.
Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie, recently signed on to work as a consultant for Oklahoma City-based Sequoyah Enterprises Inc., but said she would end the arrangement after The Oklahoman asked for details on her relationship with the company.
Griffin moved to form a new consulting business in June, and said she planned to use her experience working in the nonprofit sector to help other agencies improve their businesses.
The senator said she has done consulting work on the side since 2012, working with clients to improve their business operations and do strategic planning, but decided to expand and formalize her consulting business last month. After fielding questions from The Oklahoman, Griffin said that she has decided not to do any consulting work with agencies that have state contracts.
"I'm someone who is deeply concerned with the quality of care that Oklahomans receive and if a provider asks for my expertise, I want to be able to provide that," she said.
Griffin said she had not worked out the financial details yet of her consulting work with Sequoyah Enterprises and was working on a volunteer basis until terms could be determined.
Sequoyah Enterprises has state contracts with the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs and the Department of Human Services worth more than $6 million a year. Several state-contracted group homes operated by Sequoyah have experienced ongoing problems, including inadequate staffing, assaults on staff members and repeated instances of children running away, previous reporting by The Oklahoman has found.
Griffin said she used her previous experience working in the nonprofit sector to suggest several ways Sequoyah Enterprises can improve the care of the clients it serves, mostly children in state custody.
"They are hiring new executive management and have implemented my recommendations," she said.
Sequoyah Enterprises initially offered Griffin a position as its executive director, but Griffin said she turned the job down, because it would be a conflict of interest with her role as a state senator, she said.
Phil Rhoades, owner of Sequoyah Enterprises, did not respond to The Oklahoman's request for comment.
Griffin's consulting contract with Sequoyah Enterprises could have run afoul of state laws that prohibit legislators from receiving public money either directly or indirectly, according to an email the Oklahoma Ethics Commission sent to Griffin.
On June 11, the Ethics Commission advised Griffin to contact the Oklahoma Attorney General to see if her work as a consultant violated any state laws. A draft contract Griffin provided to the Ethics Commission includes a clause prohibiting her clients from paying her with state funds.
Griffin said she has discussed her consulting work with outside attorneys who told her the arrangement is legal.
A provision in the state constitution makes it a felony for a legislator to "receive moneys directly or indirectly arising from the use of public funds in the legislator's hands," the Ethics Commission said in its response to Griffin.
Oklahoma ethics rules also prohibit legislators from using their influence for personal gain, or to benefit people with whom they seek employment or business relationships.
Griffin moved to consult the Ethics Commission after The Oklahoman contacted her last week with questions about her work as a consultant.
The Oklahoma Ethics Commission decides on a case-by-case basis what constitutes a conflict of interest, said Ashley Kemp, executive director for the Ethics Commission.
Because Oklahoma has a part-time Legislature, most state lawmakers hold outside full- or part-time jobs. It's not uncommon for conflict-of-interest questions to arise, Kemp said.
"If it's a conflict between private economic interests and public responsibilities, that's what the conflict of interest rules are designed to protect against," she said.
Griffin is chairwoman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for human services, where she oversees funding requests from the same state agencies that contract with Sequoyah Enterprises.
Since 2011, two residents have died at Sequoyah Enterprises' group home for developmentally disabled adults in Stillwater. DHS has not moved any new clients into the Stillwater home since January, after Terry Lynn Brown, 44, died after a fight with another resident at the home.
State agencies have terminated three group home contracts with Sequoyah in the past five years after a series of compliance issues.
In June, DHS moved to terminate part of its contract with Sequoyah Enterprises involving a group home in Grove for eight adolescent boys with intellectual and behavioral health needs. The boys ranged in age from 13 to 17. DHS decided to cancel the contract after finding ongoing "deficiencies" at the group home, said Debra Martin, a spokeswoman for DHS.
However, Sequoyah Enterprises still operates state-funded group homes in Wagoner, Bartlesville, Stillwater, Wayne and Chickasha.
In a statement, DHS said external influence does not affect its decisions on whether to terminate contracts with care providers.
"DHS has not been pressured by any person or entity to terminate or not terminate a contract with any provider," the agency said.
The Office of Juvenile Affairs has a contract for $337,337 a year with Sequoyah Enterprises to operate a 12-bed group home for adolescents in Wayne. The home is for delinquent youths with an IQ of 70 and below.
As of June, there was only one child living at the group home in Wayne. However, the agency said there are eight new prospective residents who are undergoing the sometimes lengthy placement process.
The Office of Juvenile Affairs conducted a surprise visit to the Wayne group home in April because of concerns about some residents refusing to attend school, among other issues, said Tierney Tinnin, a spokeswoman for OJA.
"Any time we feel as though any provider is having some issues that we don't feel ... are being resolved, we will take the necessary steps to make those changes. Our goal is to work with providers to make changes," Tinnin said. "In this case, we gave them a list of things we would like to see addressed and they did."
The Oklahoman asked OJA to provide correspondence between the agency and Sequoyah Enterprises regarding the surprise April inspection, but the agency declined to turn over the documents. OJA's attorney said the agency believes the records are confidential under state law because they involve juveniles.
Call logs provided by the McClain County sheriff's department show numerous calls for assistance from Sequoyah's Wayne group home related to fights and runaways.
"We get calls for fights, assaults on staff, vandalism and injury to property," said Maj. James Harryman, of the McClain County Sheriff's Office.