OKLAHOMA CITY — A member of the governing board of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is questioning whether Gov. Kevin Stitt is attempting to influence road projects that involve state tribes.
Transportation Commissioner T.W. Shannon asked Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz earlier this week about whether Stitt’s office intervened in a proposed new interchange at Interstate 35 and Oklahoma 9 to alleviate congestion near the Riverwind Casino, which is owned by the Chickasaw Nation. The $17 million project would include $10 million from the tribe, plus an easement donation, Shannon said.
The project has been on the state’s eight-year plan, which was designed to eliminate politics from road projects, Shannon said.
Shannon is a former Oklahoma House speaker and current CEO of the Chickasaw Community Bank. The bank is owned by the Chickasaw Nation, of which he is a member. Current House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, appointed Shannon to the Transportation Commission.
In 2019, lawmakers gave Stitt considerably more power over some large agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
A March 22 meeting that would have put the I-35/Oklahoma 9 project into motion was canceled, Shannon said, adding that he was blindsided. The project is in his district.
Gatz said that in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision in July, his office is seeking additional input from Stitt’s office due to the uncertainty the historic case created.
The nation’s high court determined that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had never been disestablished by Congress for the purposes of federal criminal law.
Shannon said McGirt dealt with criminal matters, not civil matters.
Gatz, who serves at the pleasure of Stitt, said McGirt created uncertainties “that are going to cause the department to engage the Governor’s Office for advice and counsel on a regular basis as we work our way through tribal agreements.”
He said the project, in some form, will be completed.
A listing of the number of state-tribal road projects and dollar amounts was not immediately available from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
In a highly unusual move, Shannon asked that the issue about tribal-state partnerships be placed on the agenda for the Transportation Commission’s May meeting and that pertinent emails and meetings with Stitt’s office be provided to the commission.
Stitt’s office has had a strained relationship with the state’s tribes, which successfully sued him to get a ruling that their gaming compacts with the state had automatically renewed. The action came after Stitt sought new compacts with higher exclusivity fees from the tribes.
Legislative leaders successfully sued Stitt after he made compacts with some tribes that were not authorized under state law.
The Governor’s Office was asked if it had told ODOT to hold off on or slow down road projects involving partnerships with the tribes in light of McGirt. The office offered a statement that was not responsive.
“Oklahomans elected Governor Stitt to provide transparency and accountability for all investments of taxpayer dollars, which is now more important than ever given the uncertainty caused by McGirt,” said Carly Atchison, a Stitt spokeswoman. “The governor is not surprised that Commissioner Shannon is strongly advocating for the Chickasaw Nation’s pet project leading directly to one of its casinos.”
McGirt v. Oklahoma: Supreme Court decision and its aftermath