Updated Feb. 13
The Oklahoma State Department of Health is looking for a new interim commissioner after Preston Doerflinger abruptly resigned Tuesday.
The Board of Health voted unanimously to accept Doerflinger’s resignation, which came one day after allegations of a 2012 domestic dispute in Tulsa were reported by The Frontier.
Toward the end of its regular monthly meeting, the board voted to go into executive session to discuss Doerflinger’s employment status. After almost two hours behind closed doors, the board voted to accept his resignation, effective immediately.
It’s unclear what impact Doerflinger’s resignation will have on lawmakers’ efforts to increase oversight of the health department or on the work of a public-health delivery committee Gov. Mary Fallin appointed after problems at the agency came to light.
Legislation would remove the requirement that the health commissioner have an advanced degree in a public health-related field in order to allow candidates with financial backgrounds. Other legislation would allow the governor to appoint the heads of the health department and several other agencies, independent of their governing boards.
Health board president Martha Burger did not specify any reasons for Doerflinger’s resignation. His letter didn’t go into any detail.
Later Tuesday afternoon, Doerflinger resigned as finance secretary for Gov. Mary Fallin. He also stepped down as director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. An OMES spokeswoman confirmed that Doerflinger would not return to the agency.
The board appointed Brian Downs as acting health commissioner until a new interim commissioner can be found. Downs was most recently the agency’s director of state and federal policy.
“We have convened a committee that will begin to vet potential interim commissioners,” Burger said. “Hopefully, we will have candidates ready to vet and finalize in the next 30 to 60 days.”
In a statement, Downs said the health department has a “strong leadership team in place.
“We have a dedicated leadership team that is committed to get OSDH back on sound financial footing,” Downs said. “Our entire organization remains focused on protecting the health of all Oklahomans and restoring confidence in this agency.”
Doerflinger became interim health commissioner in November after previous Commissioner Terry Cline and other top agency leaders resigned amid financial turmoil.
The Board of Health set Doerflinger’s salary at $189,000 at its Jan. 9 meeting. That was about $17,000 more than he was making as OMES director.
Doerflinger clashed with State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones in December over whose agency should have caught financial problems at the health department. Both men had testified before a special investigations committee convened by the Oklahoma House to look into the health department and other agencies.
Meanwhile, several investigations continue into health department finances, including those by a state multicounty grand jury, the FBI and a special audit. The Legislature propped up the agency in November through a special emergency appropriation of $30 million. In addition, dozens of employees were laid off in early December, and another 161 people will lose their jobs by March.
Doerflinger’s resignation comes less than two weeks after a public spat with then-Finance Secretary Mike Romero, who played a key role in identifying the department’s financial issues. In a back-and-forth salvo of memos and press releases, Romero accused Doerflinger of perpetuating problems at the agency and improperly hearing grand jury testimony. Doerflinger accused Romero of not paying invoices on time and poorly managing the department’s financial division.
In a statement, Fallin said Doerflinger played a “critical role” in saving the state money through his work at OMES and as a member of her Cabinet.
“I was unaware of the personal situation involving Preston and his ex-wife almost six years ago. Mrs. Doerflinger did not contact my office about this matter,” Fallin said. “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.”