Two ousted members of the Veterans Commission, which oversees the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, filed a lawsuit against Kevin Stitt claiming the governor removed them for their political opinions.
“Unfortunately, we're dealing with a governor who is my way or the highway,” said Larry Van Schuyver, former chair of the commission. He filed the lawsuit alongside former vice-chair Paul Costilow in federal court Friday claiming their removal violated their freedom of speech.
“They were removed because they did not support the governor Stitt's reelection,” said their attorney, Mark Hammons.
The governor’s office notified Van Schuyver and Costilow of their removal on June 30, two days after Stitt won the Republican nomination for governor. Among his opponents was Joel Kintsel, the executive director of the ODVA.
Both plaintiffs openly supported Kintsel’s campaign on their personal time.
“I was not supporting another candidate on any commissioner business,” Van Schuyver said.
Carly Atchison, communications director for Stitt’s office, said the governor removed the commissioners because of a secretly recorded February meeting involving Van Schuyver, Costilow, and Bond Payne, Stitt’s chief of staff.
Atchison called the recording, which was released to The Frontier in June, “an egregious breach of trust.”
According to The Frontier, Payne urged the commissioners to vote on firing Kintsel, who at the time had not yet announced his gubernatorial campaign.
“So how do you all feel about an agency head that reports — ultimately reports to the governor, running against the governor?” Payne said in the recording, according to The Frontier article.
Stitt has selected two replacements for the Veterans Commission, which will be challenged in a separate lawsuit next week, Hammons said.
The lawsuit also includes claims that Stitt privately raised the idea of privatizing the operation of Oklahoma’s Veterans Centers. The seven facilities provide housing and services to elderly veterans.
Atchison flatly denied the allegation.
“The Governor has never directed privatization and that argument is a smoke screen,” she said in a statement.
Van Schuyver said he heard of Stitt’s interest in hiring a company to operate the centers after two private meetings between Kintsel and Stitt. He is concerned the privatization of the centers would result in fewer veterans being served and less funds going to the facilities.
Kintsel did not respond to a request for comment Friday evening.