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September 26, 2011

DHS criticized for process of hiring attorneys

OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma Department of Human Services commissioner is criticizing the process for hiring an outside law firm to represent the agency in a federal lawsuit.

DHS has paid about $6.3 million to outside attorneys to represent the agency in the lawsuit filed in 2008 by New York-based Children's Rights. The suit calls for an overhaul of DHS' foster care program.

Commissioner Steven Dow told The Oklahoman in a copyright story published Sunday that the hiring of private attorneys was discussed only in executive session.

"I would think it is a decision that should be made in a public meeting with a public vote," Dow said.

The contract with Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison & Lewis, a law firm with offices in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Denver, was renewed by DHS Director Howard Hendrick and attorney Charles Waters with the approval of the state attorney general's office.

Waters said the authority to enter a contract is an executive function that does not require commission approval.

"The director of human services, as the chief executive and administrative officer of DHS, is empowered under the Oklahoma Constitution and state law to enter into such contracts for professional services on behalf of the agency," said Richard Freeman, a DHS assistant general counsel.

"Neither state law nor agency policy requires OKDHS' contracts for professional services to be competitively bid or to be formally approved by the commission," Freeman added.

Dow said he believes the law does require commissioners' approval to enter into outside legal contracts.

He cited an Oklahoma law that states: "The Commission shall not contract for representation by private legal counsel unless approved by the Attorney General."

A spokeswoman for current Attorney General Scott Pruitt said Pruitt prefers that attorneys within his office assist agencies, rather than having them hire outside attorneys, but said the contract was approved by a previous administration.

The trial in the lawsuit is scheduled to start early next year, the spokeswoman said.

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