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Lawsuit filed against Oklahoma Health Department over wrongful termination, negligence

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A lawsuit has been filed against the state health department after roughly 200 employees were terminated or forced to retire early in 2017 and 2018.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of more than 150 plaintiffs, comes after the department claimed the termination was due to the agency's lack of funds. However, an audit released in May 2018 found the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) mismanaged money and the layoffs were unnecessary.

At the time, officials said the OSDH did not need the $30 million in emergency supplemental appropriation.

“This report identifies numerous issues at the Health Department regarding its internal accounting processes and procedures,” then Oklahoma State Auditor Gary Jones said. “Among our findings is that the agency did not need the $30 million emergency supplemental appropriation it received last November. And, we question the need to terminate 198 employees.”

One of the those employees is Wendy Morton.

"I was sad. I was frustrated but honestly, it didn’t surprise me that the leadership had hidden things and had so severely mismanaged the agency," Morton said. "It doesn't just impact the 200 people that were RIF'd (reduction in force) and their families. The Jefferson County Health Department lost every staff member. They wouldn't allow the county health department to close down, so the surrounding counties had to send their staff to cover so many days a week. Not only did we lose our jobs but our work family suffered, because they were stretched so thin and they were trying to cover so many jobs. Honestly, that's still the case in many instances."

Morton, a Johnston County resident, worked for the state agency for more than two decades and was let go in December 2017.

"I worked for a records, evaluation and support and that’s within the community and health services at the state health department," she told News 4. "I did a lot of financial management, financial auditing, quality assurance, quality improvement, program evaluation."

Still, she describes herself one of the lucky ones. Months later, she was able to secure a job working for the Department of Human Services; however, that now means a weekly commute to Oklahoma City from her residence in Johnston County.

The lawsuit obtained by News 4 states the department "failed to properly record both revenue and expenses" and "maintained a slush fund of discretionary dollars so that the monies would not be taken back by the legislature". Plaintiffs are suing the health department on the grounds of wrongful termination, lack of due process, negligence, negligent supervision, fraud, and constitutional tort.

"The financial crisis presented to the Legislature and to the public simply did not exist," court documents state. "The RIF (reduction in force) plan was necessary because there was no financial crisis, and it did not save money as claimed."

The lawsuit comes at a time the Legislature is eyeing bills regarding agency accountability.

Governor Kevin Stitt, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City announced five bills Tuesday that would give the executive branch the authority to hire and fire agency leaders for the Oklahoma Healthcare Authority, Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, and Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“Oklahomans want three things: accountability, transparency, and results,” said Gov. Stitt. “Elected officials’ hands have been tied in achieving these outcomes, because our current system has given agencies too much independence from the voter. This agency accountability legislation empowers elected officials to deliver stronger oversight, better services, and accountable leadership across five of the largest state agencies. It also serves as a blue print to pursue reform across all of state government."

As for Morton, she said justice meant more accountability from OSDH leadership.

"I appreciate that Mr. [Tom] Bates was not apart of the issues that led to this; however, he is still the senior leader at the organization and anytime you step into that role, you have to take on past problems and accountability and transparency," she said. "I would like to see the agency own up and say we handled this wrong, we made a mistake and we apologize. I would like to see money back from lost wages and from furloughed days. I would like to see who want to go back to the agency have that opportunity. I just want people to have the opportunity to set their lives right after this."

A spokesperson for the department says that because this is a legal matter, they cannot comment on the issue.

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