This story was produced in partnership with NonDoc Media.
An ongoing dispute between Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs director Joel Kintsel and the board that oversees the agency has intensified to the point that a leading veteran in the Legislature fired off an email instructing the feuding parties to “fix your shit.” Employees have grown weary of the elongated and politicized quarrel and say they are concerned that the drama has distracted the agency from meeting veterans’ needs, according to interviews with former and current staff, as well as public comments.
Kintsel believes Gov. Kevin Stitt wants him fired after he challenged him in the 2022 Republican primary, receiving 14.3% of the vote. He also took a significant amount of leave from ODVA — which operates veteran housing and enrolls veterans into benefit programs — to run a campaign in which he alleged massive “corruption” by Stitt’s administration.
Kintsel has said Stitt has replaced eight of nine Veterans Commission members in order to terminate his employment. He, the state attorney general and at least one veterans group have questioned the validity of some of Stitt’s appointments to the board. As a result, Kintsel refused to attend recent scheduled meetings. In one instance, he instructed staff not to post the agenda.
But new members of the Veterans Commission said in interviews and public statements that their frustrations with Kintsel are borne of his own doing, and a series of termination decisions by Kintsel and deputy director Sarah Lane — coupled with Kintsel’s increasingly combative correspondence and behavior — has left some rank-and-file ODVA staffers hoping Kintsel resigns or is terminated.
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) told the Tulsa World on Tuesday that he believes Kintsel should resign.
“I think that he should step down,” Treat said. “I think that in any objective analysis, whether he feels like he’s been treated fairly or unfairly in the public light, he is definitely a distraction to being able to serve veterans.”
That could happen at a special Veterans Commission meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The agenda for the meeting proposes an executive session for board members to discuss “the employee performance and conduct of Joel Kintsel related to the current workplace environment.” Action items on the positions of executive director and interim executive director also appear.
New Veterans Commission Chairman Robert Allen declined to speculate how Wednesday’s meeting will go, but he discussed Kintsel earlier this month as tensions were mounting.
“What I’ve learned is this guy doesn’t like oversight,” Allen said in an interview. “He doesn’t like people asking him tough questions, unless it’s coming from a rubber-stamp commission of his campaign donors.”
Wednesday’s meeting — scheduled at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s office instead of ODVA headquarters — comes less than two weeks after Kintsel refused to attend a Veterans Commission meeting on Feb. 3.
Kintsel argues that certain Stitt appointees to the governing body are “illegitimate” and contrary to statutory requirements. About an hour before the Feb. 3 meeting, he forwarded dozens of media outlets his correspondence with commissioners and legislators criticizing Stitt’s appointments and explaining his absence.
“You do not represent the Oklahoma veterans community in the manner explicitly laid out in the applicable statute. A group of randomly chosen veterans does not make a Veterans Commission make. Only veterans chosen accordingly to the law, comprise a legally constituted Veterans Commission,” Kintsel wrote. “Because presently the Oklahoma Veterans Commission is not legally constituted, I will not be participating in the so-called veterans commission meeting you have unlawfully scheduled today.”
Kintsel’s absence left three other staff members to answer commissioners’ questions about the delayed and over-budget construction of Sallisaw’s new Oklahoma State Veterans Home. His refusal to attend the meeting openly frustrated commissioners and privately infuriated ODVA staff.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity owing to fear of retribution, two ODVA employees discussed staff reactions to the absence of Kintsel and Lane, the deputy director.
“With Joel not being here, they were looking for who is in charge,” one employee said. “That’s how bad it is.”
A second employee described the situation similarly.
“They had to defend his bullshit for the meeting and the commissioners,” the person said.
‘I have watched this back and forth shit for the last nine months’
Kintsel is the former parliamentarian of the Oklahoma House, and several lawmakers supported his move to become deputy director of ODVA in January 2018. Months later, auditors culminated a three-year audit with a report calling ODVA a “dysfunctional environment” with “a culture of fear and intimidation.” In September 2019, Kintsel was promoted to director by a Veterans Commission featuring multiple members whom Stitt would replace over the next three years.
As Kintsel’s standoff with Stitt and new commissioners has intensified, some observers have run out of patience.
Rep. Josh West, a Purple Heart recipient who chairs the House Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, emailed his frustrations to Kintsel, Lane, Veterans Commission Vice Chairman Sid Ellington and other legislators on Jan. 24:
“I have watched this back and forth shit for the last nine months. We are two weeks out from session and we have the ability to do some great things for our Oklahoma veterans and surviving spouses this year. If you know me, then you know that within this building, I operate in the black and white and there is no gray area about me.
As chairman of this committee, my only job is to ensure that we are doing the best to take care of our veterans. Fix your shit and quit sending me your back and forth emails. I’m a pretty easy guy to get along with, but I have no use for this petty childish bullshit. If my language offends you, then I’m sorry, but I’m going to call it as I see it.”
The email did little to assuage the conflict between Kintsel and commissioners over the ensuing three weeks. West (R-Grove) said Monday that the drama had lingered too long.
“The bottom line is, at this point, we’re not doing our job taking care of Oklahoma veterans,” West said.
Kintsel blames that on Stitt and his changes to the governing commission’s membership.
“This drama started two days after the primary election, and since then the governor has removed — either through termination or replacement — eight of the nine commissioners,” Kintsel said Feb. 9.
About 30 veterans met with Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond to express their concerns earlier this month.
Drummond, a veteran himself, weighed in on the drama with a Friday afternoon press release emphasizing the troubling tableau that has been painted for the public.
“This entire episode has been nothing short of a spectacle,” Drummond said. “It is unfortunate that the governor has not followed the proper appointment process, and it is equally unfortunate that the executive director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs is acting irresponsibly and not in the best interests of veterans. It is wholly unacceptable that Oklahoma’s honorable veterans have been left without a functional commission.”
Legitimacy of commission ‘a subject of some disagreement’
According to Title 72, Section 63.2 of state statute, the governor appoints all nine members of the Veterans Commission, with six seats representing specific groups:
- American Legion
- Veterans of Foreign Wars
- Disabled American Veterans
- Paralyzed Veterans of America
- Military Order of the Purple Heart
- National Guard Association of Oklahoma
The statute requires each group to send the governor a list of five potential nominees for its seat on the commission. The statute also says one member must be a veteran of the Vietnam War.
But over the past year, at least three of Stitt’s appointees were not selected from the organizations’ lists. Instead, Stitt appointed members of the organizations who had not officially been recommended.
Allen has a lifetime membership in the Military Order of the Purple Heart, but he was not recommended by the group. Daniel Orr represents the Disabled American Veterans but was not recommended, and Ted Perry represents the Veterans of Foreign Wars but was not recommended. Former commission members and others have also raised concerns that no Vietnam veteran now serves on the board.
Stitt’s office and his appointees have cited a section further down in the statute that says the veteran service organizations “on or before January 1 of the year in which the organization’s appointee’s term expires” must submit a “performance audit and financial audit of the organization for the immediately preceding fiscal year of the organization,” or else the organization will be rendered “ineligible to submit a nominee to the governor.”
“Ask the guys with the Military Order of the Purple Heart the last time they submitted the performance and financial audit to the state, which is required,” Allen said. “The answer is ‘never.’”
During his Feb. 6 meeting with aggrieved veterans, Drummond said he disagrees with the interpretation of the statute’s reporting requirement and believes the appointments were made “contrary to law.”
“There’s also the concern that you have an audit that’s due on the year of your term’s expiration, and how that is interpreted, I think, is a subject of some disagreement between the governor’s office and this office,” Drummond said.
Former Commissioner Larry Van Schuyver and the Oklahoma Military Order of the Purple Heart challenged Allen’s appointment in court, but the judge so far has ruled in favor of the Stitt administration on motions limiting the plaintiffs’ arguments. Stitt’s press secretary declined to comment on the situation, referring to the administration’s filings in the ongoing litigation.
Kintsel’s reaction to what he views as illegitimate appointments has thrown the commission into a stalemate. A scheduled Feb. 10 commission meeting never occurred, and Kintsel and Allen continued to bicker by email.
“By directing staff not to post the agenda or cooperate with this commission, you continue to deliberately obstruct us from conducting business on public property in an effort to prevent the public and our veterans from understanding what is taking place in the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs,” Allen told Kintsel in an email.
In an effort to mitigate further debacles with the commission, Rep. Jay Steagall (R-Yukon) filed House Bill 1080, which would spread the nine commission appointments across six individuals: the governor, the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and the labor commissioner. The bill advanced unanimously out of a House committee Feb. 7.
“What we need to keep in mind here is that the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, by design, is a non-direct reporting agency, and it’s very difficult for us to maintain that mandate when it’s one individual that has all nine appointments to the commission,” Steagall said.
The legislation has also garnered some support from Drummond, who said he is “encouraged that our state Legislature appears poised to resolve this matter.”
“I believe it is prudent to resist litigation by this office, let the legislative process run its course and ultimately ensure the integrity of the Veterans Commission,” Drummond said.
‘It’s the secretism. It’s the lies. It’s the toxic management up here.’
Unlike Kintsel, former ODVA employees Travis Stanberry and Camilo Ulloa attended the Feb. 3 meeting of the Oklahoma Veterans Commission. They watched their former colleagues, construction program administrator Nisha Young and chief financial officer Lisa White, answer commissioners’ questions for more than an hour because Kintsel chose not to attend.
Afterward, both men walked to the agency’s parking lot, interacting briefly with commissioners and answering journalists’ questions.
“It took a lot of courage for Nisha and Lisa and the other employees who were sitting in the back, because your leadership is not there,” Ulloa said. “In the military, everybody tells you that your leadership is always going to be there, because that’s what their authority, responsibility and obligation is. And if you run away from that, it’s not considered courageous.”
Ulloa and Stanberry were both terminated in 2022 under circumstances they believe were unfair.
As Stanberry stood outside ODVA headquarters Feb. 3 and described his final months at the agency, a man who identified himself as the husband of an ODVA human resources employee confronted Stanberry about whether he was “bad-mouthing” his wife.
“You don’t intimidate me dude,” the man said.
Stanberry replied, “I don’t try to.”
A Marine Corps veteran, Stanberry said the bizarre encounter underscored the “toxic” climate faced at ODVA headquarters.
Stanberry lives in the Lincoln County community of Sparks, said his employment ended in 2022 after he was reassigned from serving veterans in Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Hughes, Lincoln, Seminole and Pottawatomie counties. Instead, he was asked to shadow another employee for outreach to incarcerated veterans.
When he was eventually reassigned to the ODVA office in OKC, Stanberry said he was asked on Sept. 12 to return a state vehicle he was assigned for the outreach job the next day. He said he asked his supervisor for help.
“I said, ‘I don’t have a way to get home. I can’t drive my vehicle up here and that vehicle. My wife’s at work.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, if you don’t have a ride, I’ll give you a ride,’” Stanberry recalled. “It’s 57 miles to my house. And the next day, on the 13th, he never showed up for work. He was at an ODVA symposium in Stillwater.”
As the afternoon progressed, Stanberry said he made it known that he had no other ride home and would need to wait for his wife to get off work and pick him up around 8 p.m. He said ODVA’s human resources director and legal counsel asked to speak to him in his office.
“They both talked to me, and they said they talked to Joel (Kintsel) and Sarah (Lane), and they had made it clear that I was not allowed to stay here and I needed to get off the premises,” Stanberry said.
Stanberry said he decided to walk toward Lincoln County.
“I ended up walking a little over 11 miles,” he said. “I made it almost to the bridge on 23rd Street or Highway 62 in Choctaw when one of the veterans I’d helped saw me walking, pulled over, picked me up and took me home.”
Stanberry said the incident made him feel “like they don’t care.”
“It’s the secretism. It’s the lies. It’s the toxic management up here,” Stanberry said.
Asked about Stanberry’s termination and other employee concerns, Kintsel said he had not been told about the parking lot encounter.
“I’m not going to comment on any of that,” Kintsel said. “That’s all HR stuff, and there’s a lot going on there that we’ve followed the law and done what we needed to do.”
But both of the two ODVA employees who agreed to speak about their concerns on the condition of anonymity said Stanberry’s parking lot encounter epitomizes the workplace culture.
“For us, it’s the way they operate and employment (decisions),” one employee said. “How they got rid of Travis, how they got rid of Camillo. That’s really the biggest issues for us. Their hiring practices.”
Another employee said the atmosphere at ODVA became additionally tense when Kintsel announced in April 2022 that he was challenging Stitt in the Republican primary.
“We were on pins and needles here, to be honest, because we didn’t know what it meant for our jobs or for the [agency] itself,” the person said.
The other ODVA employee agreed.
“It was common sense,” they said. “You’re running against your boss, so that was common sense that there would be some issues.”
Both employees said that the vast majority of their coworkers are tired of working for Kintsel and Lane.
“It’s 90 to 95 percent who want him gone, and the other 5 percent are people he appointed,” the person said.
Kintsel said employee morale is not a problem at ODVA.
“I think the people who are telling you those things have been talking to former employees, some of whom have been terminated for cause,” Kintsel said.
New ODVA home in Sallisaw delayed, over budget
The ODVA drama and governance questions have boiled over at recent meetings as the new members of the commission have attempted to learn more about the delays and cost increases for the agency’s new Oklahoma State Veterans Home being built in Sallisaw.
In January, Kintsel requested that the Veterans Commission vote to declare an “emergency” regarding the project so that a change order increasing the building cost by $22 million could be approved. As approved, the center was expected to cost $77 million, but it had to be remodeled after architectural imperfections meant the design was not up to state fire code.
Commissioners received only limited information regarding their most pressing questions, including why the project’s budget had been lowered from an original $90 million down to $77 million. Both employees said their superiors had made that decision, including Kintsel.
Kintsel, who declined to discuss what he anticipates could happen at Wednesday’s 10 a.m. meeting of the Veterans Commission, said ODVA can still recover money from the project’s original architect if commissioners would just let him do his work.
“We’ve got the original architect that was grossly negligent and did not provide complete architectural plans for the project,” Kintsel said Feb. 9. “Of course, it took a while for that to come to light. So we have retained a law firm here in Oklahoma City that is going to sue them and hopefully recover damages for the state of Oklahoma.”