OKLAHOMA CITY — Two former top-ranking members of the Oklahoma Veterans Commission filed suit against Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday, alleging that he violated their First Amendment right to support his political opponent.
Larry Wayne Van Schuyver, former Veteran’s Commission chairman and a retired Navy command master chief, and Paul D. Costilow, former vice chairman and a retired Army brigadier general who served in Vietnam, filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.
They allege that Stitt removed them from the Oklahoma Veterans Commission for supporting Joel Kintsel in his bid to unseat the governor. They were notified of their removal two days after Stitt defeated Kintsel in the primary.
Kintsel is executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. The commission hires and fires the executive director.
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Stitt has replaced commission members who voted to give Kintsel a leave of absence to run for governor, Van Schuyver said.
Mark Hammons, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Stitt violated the right of political affiliation.
“Ironically, he has denied that right to the people who fought to make sure we would have that right in this country,” Hammons said.
Retaliating against someone for exercising a First Amendment right is unlawful, he added.
The suit also says the plaintiffs did not support a plan by Stitt to privatize the state’s seven veterans centers.
Van Schuyver, who was wounded while deployed to Iraq, opposed the plan because he believes it would outsource management of veterans’ care, reduce the quality of service and increase the cost, according to the suit.
About half of the Oklahoma veterans in the homes would not qualify to continue living there under privatization, Van Schuyver claims, adding in an interview with the Tulsa World on Friday that he thinks Stitt probably wants to give operation of those homes “to his cronies.”
Hammons said another suit will be filed next week to challenge one of Stitt’s appointees.
Stitt appointed Robert W. Allen Jr. on Thursday to replace Van Schuyver and Scott B. Sweeney to replace Costilow.
Hammons claims that Stitt did not follow the law in appointing Allen. Hammons said the appointment had to come from among five names submitted by the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and Van Schuyver, who is commander of the organization, said he had never heard of Allen. The organization did not offer Allen’s name for consideration, Van Schuyver said.
“He doesn’t get to go out and pick a political buddy,” Hammons said.
Van Schuyver said the end goal for him “is to put the governor in his place and make it a fair process for appointing commissioners.”
Despite the two new appointments, the nine-member Veteran’s Commission failed to reach a quorum to meet on Friday.
An agenda item for the slated meeting was a discussion about the roles of the commission and the secretary of military and veterans affairs.
Stitt recently appointed John Nash to that post, and Nash received Senate confirmation.
Kintsel said Nash is trying to exercise power over the agency, for which there is no legal authority.
“We are starting to struggle mightily as to who is in what lane,” Kintsel said. “Under the law, the secretary plays no role operationally. And this seems to be difficult for this appointee to understand.”
Stitt’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
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