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Stitt acted unlawfully in Veterans Commission shakeup: lawsuit

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Gov. Kevin Stitt
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Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt visits Veterans Park in Enid, home to a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A federal lawsuit filed Friday alleges Gov. Kevin Stitt violated both state statute and the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights in the process of firing and replacing two members of the Oklahoma Veterans Commission.

The suit, brought by former commission chair Larry Van Schuyver and vice chair Pete Costilow, alleges Stitt acted out of political retaliation because the two men did not support Stitt's primary campaign, instead backing Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Director Joel Kintsel.

Van Schuyver and Costilow said they were told of their firings two days after Kintsel lost to Stitt in the primary.

"I think even the village idiot could see if you get fired two days after the primary for backing somebody else's opponent, that's probably political retaliation," Van Schuyver said Tuesday in a phone interview.

"The governor's the gift that keeps on giving — he just keeps throwing smoke and mirrors, and, in my opinion, making himself look more petty," Van Schuyver said.

The Frontier reported in June that Van Schuyver recorded a meeting with Stitt chief of staff Bond Payne in which Payne urged the commission to remove Kintsel as ODVA director due to his primary challenge to Stitt.

Van Schuyver said Tuesday he recorded the conversation because he "didn't trust our governor" to do the right thing concerning veterans, saying Stitt had previously privately expressed a desire to privatize state veterans centers, a policy Van Schuyver and Costilow oppose.

The suit also points to a section of Oklahoma statute that requires the member of the Veterans Commission representing the Military Order of the Purple Heart — the seat previously held by Van Schuyver, the state commander of that organization — be chosen from a list of five names recommended by the group.

"The gentleman that he selected, we've never heard of him," Van Schuyver said of Robert Allen, Stitt's new appointee. "We're not saying he's not an honorable man or he's not a Purple Heart recipient, but he's not an active member. He would have not been one of the people we selected to represent us."

The governor's office did not respond to multiple request for comment for this story. The Oklahoman reports Stitt spokesperson Carly Atchison claimed Van Schuyver and Costilow were removed due to their committing an unspecified "egregious breach of trust."

Van Schuyver said he was planning an additional lawsuit in the coming days on behalf of the Oklahoma Military Order of the Purple Heart, over the lack of statutorily required consultation with the group in Stitt's selection of Allen.

"We're not doing this for practice. We're warriors," he said.

The removal of Van Schuyver and Costilow is not Stitt's first high-profile firing of a military figure. Last November, Stitt fired Maj. Gen. Mike Thompson from his role as Adjutant General of the Oklahoma National Guard after Thompson expressed support for military vaccination requirements the governor publicly opposed. Stitt gave no reason for that firing either publicly or to Thompson, the general said.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.