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Head of health department resigns after domestic violence report

Preston Doerflinger

Preston Doerflinger

Oklahoma City — Preston Doerflinger resigned from posts atop the state's administration Tuesday — one day after media reports of domestic violence.

Doerflinger had been interim commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health and secretary of finance, administration and information technology.

He submitted his resignation as interim commissioner to the board of health during an executive session on Tuesday afternoon. The governor later confirmed he had resigned from his other position.

Doerflinger served as director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services before going to the Health Department.

Doerflinger's 20-word letter to the board of health didn't address his reasons for leaving the interim commissioner job, saying only that his resignation would be effective immediately. He said little during the board's Tuesday meeting, and left before the members returned from executive session to announce his resignation. He didn't respond to a call to his cellphone Tuesday afternoon.

The resignations put an end to his ever-increasing accumulation of responsibilities in Gov. Mary Fallin's administration. Doerflinger had joined the administration as secretary of finance and administration in 2011, after working in business and as auditor for the city of Tulsa. In 2013, he was put in charge of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which had been created out of state finance and information technology offices in 2013.

Despite his rapid rise, Doerflinger had a history of questionable personal decisions.

A Tulsa Police Department report obtained by The Oklahoman shows that police officers responded to a report of domestic violence at Doerflinger's Tulsa home on Sept. 8, 2012. His then-wife was listed as the victim. The couple have since divorced.

The call came five days after another domestic violence 911 call from the home, police logs show.

During the earlier call, a crying unidentified adult female called from her backyard, saying that her husband had “held her up against the wall” after a confrontation about his alleged extramarital relationship, reports show. The caller later said there was no need for officers and she would just stay.

Doerflinger was not jailed or charged with domestic violence after the 2012 incidents.

His ex-wife sent an email to the Tulsa World on Monday night, questioning the newsworthiness of reports that first appeared earlier that day in another Tulsa media outlet.

“This isn't a real story,” Doerflinger's ex-wife said in the statement. “Domestic violence is a serious issue affecting millions of families. However, mine is not one of them. Using such a serious topic for sensationalism, click bait, or political agenda devalues the efforts of those trying to bring empowerment to those who need it.”

Fallin said in a statement following Doerflinger's resignation that his ex-wife had never brought the alleged incident to her attention, and she was unaware of it before media reports Monday.

“I take domestic violence very seriously, but I will take Mrs. Doerflinger at her word that this matter was not a case of domestic violence. I respect Preston's decision to move on from his government service, and wish him and his family the best,” she said.

The Tulsa 911 calls weren't Doerflinger's only encounters with police.

In January 2015, Doerflinger was arrested by Oklahoma City police on a complaint of actual physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, a charge to which he later pleaded no contest.

His Jan. 22, 2015, arrest came after officers responded to a call from a witness who reported seeing a distraught woman trying to get out of a vehicle near 3245 NW Expressway.

The caller said it looked like the woman was being “held hostage,” but the woman denied being held against her will after officers found her and Doerflinger in a vehicle that was idling in a parking lot.

Under terms of his plea agreement, Doerflinger was required to go through assessment and treatment, attend DUI school and participate in at least 20 Alcoholics Anonymous sessions.

A contentious tenure

Despite Doerflinger's run-ins with police, the board of the Health Department appointed him interim commissioner when then-commissioner Terry Cline resigned from the Health Department in October 2017. In January, the board also voted to give Doerflinger an $18,000 raise, bringing his annual salary to $189,000, and members never publicly voiced dissatisfaction with his performance.

The Health Department was going through upheaval after Cline and other top officials resigned or were fired. Years of overspending and questionable accounting practices had left the department in a budget crunch, which had led to the end of programs supporting health centers and child abuse prevention. After Doerflinger took over, the agency received $30 million from the Legislature, but still announced significant layoffs.

Doerflinger's roughly four months as interim commissioner proved contentious at times. He and state auditor Gary Jones sparred, and once held rival news conferences on the same day. Some lawmakers questioned why Doerflinger had received a raise at a time that Health Department employees were facing layoffs, and relations with the Oklahoma House Investigation Committee appeared to turn sour less than two months into Doerflinger's tenure.

When the committee issued a subpoena to Doerflinger to testify in December, he characterized the subpoena as motivated by hostility toward administration officials not “directly related” to the Health Department's financial troubles. The committee withdrew the subpoena when he agreed to cooperate.

“I believe that God and everyone knows exactly what that's about,” he said at the time. “And I think everyone can see it for what it is.”

Perhaps the strangest dispute was with Mike Romero, the Health Department's chief financial officer, who often appeared with Doerflinger when the Legislature wanted briefings on the Health Department's situation. When he resigned in January, Romero accused Doerflinger of improperly monitoring employees' statements to investigators. Doerflinger denied any impropriety, and alleged Romero's behavior had become bizarre after problems with his work surfaced.

Despite the friction surrounding Doerflinger's tenure, Fallin praised his work to find efficiencies in state government.

“During the past seven years, his efforts saved tax dollars by implementing cost-saving reforms and consolidating state agencies,” Fallin said in a statement. “He also helped guide the Department of Human Services during a critical time when key reforms, such as the Pinnacle Plan (to improve the foster care system), were implemented. I appreciate his service to the state.”

Moving forward

Denise Northrup, who was appointed interim director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services when Doerflinger moved to the Health Department, will continue in that role, Zumwalt said. The administration hasn't announced who will take over as secretary of finance, administration and information technology.

The Health Department's board appointed Brian Downs, director of state and federal policy at the Health Department, as acting commissioner until the board appoints an interim commissioner.

Board President Martha Burger said the board is putting together a committee to evaluate candidates for interim commissioner.

“Hopefully, we will have candidates to vet in the next 30 to 60 days and have an interim commissioner in place shortly after that time,” she said

Downs said the department has a strong team to lead it through the transition.

“We have a dedicated leadership team that is committed to get OSDH back on sound financial footing,” he said in a statement. “Our entire organization remains focused on protecting the health of all Oklahomans and restoring confidence in this agency.”

Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›