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State uses funds derived from gaming to defend against lawsuit brought by tribes

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Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Gov. Kevin Stitt. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World file

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt is using funds generated by tribal fees to pay for a law firm to defend him in a lawsuit brought by three of the state’s largest gaming tribes.

Stitt announced Friday the hiring of the Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie to represent him in a legal dispute over tribal gaming compacts.

Three tribes have sued the governor, asking a federal court for an order declaring that their tribal gaming compacts automatically renewed on Jan. 1.

Stitt and the tribes are at an impasse on the compacts. The governor believes they have expired and that Class III gaming is illegal without a new agreement. He is seeking higher fees from the tribes for gaming exclusivity.

Currently, the tribes pay between 4% and 10% in exchange for exclusivity rights to operate Class III games, which include slot machines, roulette and craps. The exclusivity fees generated nearly $150,000 million for the state last fiscal year.

The tribes believe the compacts automatically renewed, but they are willing to discuss higher rates in exchange for something of value if Stitt acknowledges automatic renewal.

Under the compacts, each gaming tribe pays an annual assessment of $35,000 to cover the state’s “costs incurred in connection with the oversight of covered games.”

In addition, tribes also pay a one-time $50,000 startup assessment “to assist the state in initiating its administrative and oversight responsibilities,” according to the compact.

The balance in the fund is nearly $2.1 million, according to a spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

Donelle Harder, a Stitt spokeswoman, said the law firm is being paid up to $300,000 using funds from that account.

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The figure could rise.

Stephen Greetham is senior counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, one of the three tribes that sued the state.

He said use of the funds to defend the suit seems “well outside any purpose authorized by that very same compact.”

The Chickasaw counsel also pointed out that Stitt contends the compact has expired.

“Given that Gov. Stitt believes the compact expired with the New Year, it is unclear what he thinks the state’s ongoing compact oversight responsibilities are,” Greetham said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, also has questions about the use of the fund to pay legal fees.

“Is this part of the compliance?” he asked.

Harder, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Gaming Compliance Unit funds have been used in recent years for various services, including legal services.

“The state’s contract with Perkins Coie, as it prepares to respond to the Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw Nation’s federal lawsuit, is not out of the norm for the Gaming Compliance Unit,” Harder said.

Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about tribal gaming in Oklahoma.

Barbara Hoberock 405-528-2465

Twitter: @bhoberock

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