MuniLand

Oklahoma’s DHS agitator is exonerated

By Cate Long
June 19, 2012

Two weeks ago I wrote about what seemed to be a smear campaign against Steven Dow, a forceful commissioner in the Oklahoma Department of Human Services who agitated for investigations into a series of deaths of children who were wards of the state and under DHS supervision. Dow was issued a public reprimand by the state’s Ethics Commission for alleged conflicts of interests related to his position as the unpaid director of a social service agency while he was simultaneously serving as a commissioner at DHS. His agency’s contracts with the DHS were tiny, and when they were brought up at the department, he recused himself from those discussions. Last Friday, in the state’s first-ever reversal, the Ethics Commission withdrew its public reprimand of Dow, citing newly discovered evidence that the alleged ethics violation was “inadvertent.”

As I wrote previously, the initial Ethics Commission action looked bogus because it was hard to see Dow’s motive:

The basis of the reprimand from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission was that there was a conflict of interest with Dow serving on DHS because he is also the unpaid director of Community Action Program (see page 8), a Tulsa non-profit serving the low-income community.

Over nine years it appears that CAP has received about $1.5 million in DHS contracts, or 0.5 percent of its revenue (see CAP’s contracts with DHS here). That said, I’m not convinced that Dow ever had an incentive to seek personal enrichment from his DHS service. After all, his wife, Tracy Schusterman, is one of the richest people in Oklahoma. She recently sold her family’s business, Samson Energy, to KKR for $7.2 billion. Nevertheless, following the public reprimand, Dow decided to resign.

Dow avoided any possible conflict of interest prior to beginning his tenure as DHS commissioner and even notified the governor’s office directly about his position at the social service agency. From the Oklahoman:

Dow wrote that he had informed then-Gov. Brad Henry’s office of the potential conflict when Henry first appointed him, and said Henry’s “legal counsel and chief of staff thoroughly investigated and researched the matter, concluding that there was not a violation of any provision of the Constitution or statute.”

Creating change in a moribund social institution is hard, and Dow fought the good fight. I first noticed his efforts last September with this excerpt from the Oklahoman:

Dow told The Oklahoman, “My calls for greater accountability and interest by the commission in even asking questions are met with a deafening silence … I basically have gotten no response from most of the commissioners.”

Dow asked for special meetings after the 2010 death of Aja Johnson, 7, and the June death of Serenity Deal, 5.

He brought up five other children’s deaths in one of his requests for a meeting about Serenity.

DHS officials say child-welfare workers made mistakes in the girl’s case. Four workers were put on administrative leave. One committed suicide. Another resigned. The other two are in the process of being fired.

It’s disheartening whenever an honorable public official’s reputation gets sullied in a political battle. I hope the withdrawal of the public reprimand brings some comfort to Dow. More important, I hope it reignites his willingness to be a champion for the poor and the children who live in the shadows of society. So few are willing to bring light to those dark places.

Further:

The Oklahoman: Oklahoma Ethics Commission votes Friday to withdraw its public reprimand of former DHS Commissioner Steven Dow

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