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$2 Million in State Funds Used to Pay Law Firms in Legal Battles with Tribal Nations

Nearly $2 million in state funds originally intended for ensuring Oklahoma receives its share from tribal gaming operations has been used to pay law firms representing Governor Kevin Stitt in legal disputes with the tribes, according to payment records. The money came from annual fees paid by tribal nations to the state for regulating gaming operations.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has expressed concern over the possible misappropriation of funds and is investigating whether they were properly used to cover legal expenses for the governor in multiple lawsuits. State payment records show that more than $1.9 million from the gaming compliance program funds has been paid to outside law firms representing the governor in legal actions over the past three years.

These payments were made from the state's gaming compliance fund, which is separate from the exclusivity fees paid by tribes to operate gaming in Oklahoma. Tribes contribute over $1 million annually to the gaming compliance fund.

It has been stated that Governor Stitt should have sought approval from the Legislature before utilizing these funds for lawsuits against the tribes. Scott Meacham, one of the architects of the gaming compact approved by Oklahoma voters in 2004, emphasized that gaming compliance money should not be used for legal fees in negotiations for a new compact. Meacham also suggested that tribes may have legal recourse if the funds were misused.

Although Governor Mary Fallin had also reportedly used some of the money for legal fees related to gaming-related lawsuits with tribal governments, the Attorney General's Office has not found any legislative approval supporting the use of these funds for legal expenses.

A spokesperson for Governor Stitt argued that using the funds to pay law firms is an appropriate use, as permitted by the state's model gaming compact with the tribes. However, Matt Morgan, Chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, disagreed, stating that such usage is unlawful and inconsistent with the spirit of the compact. He noted that compliance fees are intended for oversight and hiring staff, including attorneys if necessary, to ensure tribal nations comply with the compact.

In addition to the ongoing legal battles, last week Attorney General Drummond announced that he would be taking over as Stitt's attorney in a federal lawsuit filed by several major tribes against the U.S. Department of Interior, Stitt, and officials from smaller tribes that signed new gaming agreements with the governor. The larger tribes argue that the compacts are invalid, referencing a 2020 Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling that sided with legislative leaders who determined the compacts were not valid.

For this particular lawsuit, the state has already spent nearly $600,000 on attorneys' fees. The payment records reveal that various law firms have been paid from gaming compliance funds for litigation against Governor Stitt since early 2020. The total fees paid to outside attorneys from the gaming compliance funds over the past three years now exceed $1.9 million.