Amid pandemic, state health department contracts with public relations specialist at rate of $150 an hour

Donate
Joshua Harlow, a former employee of Jones Public Relations, and Brenda Jones Barwick, president and CEO of Jones PR, which is suing Harlow. PROVIDED/PRWEEK awards

Update: A health department spokeswoman said as of Wednesday afternoon, Harlow was no longer working for the department, though the nature of his separation was not immediately clear. 

In early March, just days after Oklahoma had recorded its first case of COVID-19, the Oklahoma State Department of Health agreed to pay a local public relations specialist $150 an hour to help manage the department’s response to the upcoming crisis. 

The contract, which was released on Tuesday to The Frontier following an open records request, called for Josh Harlow to be paid $150-per-hour for up to 999 hours.

Harlow, 35, is the head of Oklahoma City-based Free Market Consulting in Oklahoma. He launched that company in 2019 after leaving Jones Public Relations, Inc.

The contract said Harlow, upon being hired by OSDH, became an unclassified employee and his employment was considered “at-will.”

“If you accept this position, you will enter into an employment relationship with OSDH voluntarily and acknowledge that there is no specified length of employment,” the contract states. “Accordingly, either you or OSDH can terminate the relationship at will, with or without cause, at any time, so long as there is no violation of applicable federal law.”

Shelley Zumwalt, who was brought on by the health department from the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to help with communications during the pandemic, said on Wednesday the health department was looking to replace Harlow with a full-time employee as early as this week.

Harlow has also handled public relations for Gateway First Bank. Press releases by the bank from as recently as January 2020 list Harlow as a media contact.

Stitt launched and ran Gateway Mortgage Company prior to becoming Oklahoma’s governor, and the company transitioned into a bank following his election.

Originally, Harlow was hired on a contract basis to help the health department’s communications team, Zumwalt said, but was moved to social media after Donelle Harder was brought in to assist the communications team. Harder announced on March 17, just seven days after Harlow’s hiring, that she was joining the health department.

Harder was previously the head of communications for Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a position she left earlier this year. 

Jamie Dukes, the health department’s public information officer, also works in the OSDH communications division. 

Two weeks after Harlow was hired by the health department, Oklahoma crossed the 100-case threshold for COVID-19. Positive cases have continued to rise in the state, up to 1,524 confirmed positive cases and at least 79 confirmed deaths as of Wednesday.

Oklahoma has been widely criticized for its response to the coronavirus as it struggled to provide testing early on for the state’s residents. Eventually private labs joined the effort and helped expand the state’s testing capabilities, but until this week the labs were not reporting negative test results. That made it impossible to know the full scope of testing in Oklahoma and placed the state wrongly on the bottom of several national lists of states that had conducted the least amount of testing.

In January, The Frontier reported that Harlow, the former vice president of Jones Public Relations, Inc., was accused by his former company of stealing several accounts and secretly taking leadership positions with some of the organizations, which include nonprofits that have spent millions on political advocacy.

Harlow denied all wrongdoing.

Several of the clients Jones PR is accusing Harlow of stealing are social welfare organizations, which are politically active nonprofits often referred to as dark money groups because they do not have to disclose donors. These groups can receive unlimited contributions from corporations or individuals.

Harlow also headed a political group in 2018 that opposed a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana in the state. That ballot measure, State Question 788, was eventually successful.  

Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. Click here to become a Friend of The Frontier.

Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
Donate