The Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office exceeded its authority when it paid $90,000 to an attorney Gov. Kevin Stitt hired to examine tribal issues, an audit has found.
Stitt hired Oklahoma City-based attorney Ryan Leonard in 2020 to help address legal issues in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision that found that Congress never disestablished the Muscogee Nation reservation in eastern Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office under then-secretary Brian Bingman also contracted with Leonard and paid Stitt’s office nine $10,000-monthly reimbursements.
State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd issued an audit last week that found the payments from Secretary of State’s office violated state law because they benefitted Bingman in his separate, unfunded position as Stitt’s cabinet secretary for Native American Affairs. A member of the governor’s cabinet is not allowed to bill a state agency for services it doesn’t benefit from, the report found. Invoices to the Secretary of State’s office classified the payments as program reimbursements for litigation costs. But the invoices contained little information about the services Leonard was providing, according to the audit.
Stitt’s office signed a memorandum of understanding with the Secretary of State’s office, citing state law it claimed allowed for the payments, but Byrd’s audit found that the agreement did not adhere to those laws.
The audit found that the governor’s office didn’t provide the Secretary of State’s office with any labor or equipment or get any benefit from the deal.
The audit recommended that management at the Secretary of State’s office take steps to ensure the office actually receives a service or benefit for payments made to other agencies.
Bingman has since left the Secretary of State’s office, and is now campaigning to replace the term-limited Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony.
Jeffrey Cartmell, an attorney for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the audit did not uncover any misspending and that Leonard provided services to the office.
“Mr. Leonard’s services were shared between the Office of the Secretary of State and Office of the Governor because of the overlap of responsibilities and duties of the two offices,” Cartmell said. “Utilizing a shared services agreement, which was edited, reviewed, and approved by the Office of the Attorney General, resulted in savings for the state – and the taxpayer.
Specifically, Mr. Leonard acted as a liaison with various tribal leaders throughout the state. His activities for our office were in coordination with the outreach performed by Secretary Bingman.”
Abegail Cave, spokeswoman for Stitt, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Stitt has recently faced criticism for his use of state money in his legal fights with the tribes.
In August, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond questioned Stitt’s use of nearly $2 million in tribal gaming compliance unit funds — which come from fees paid the state’s tribes pay to the state as part of gaming compacts. Stitt used the money to pay for outside law firms and attorneys to defend him in lawsuits brought by some of the larger tribes over tribal gaming issues.
Drummond said he was not aware of any law that allows the governor’s office to use those gaming compliance funds for legal defense, though a spokeswoman for Stitt said nothing restricts the funds from being used for that purpose.
In a letter responding to the audit, Bingman said his office did receive services and benefits from Leonard and that multiple attorneys and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office reviewed the memorandum of understanding and said the arrangement complied with state law. Then-Attorney General Mike Hunter signed off on the agreement, the letter said.
“Mr. Leonard helped the Office fulfill its duty of representing the state to other governments in a variety of ways,” Bingman’s letter states. “This included meeting with tribal leaders and tribal delegations from a wide range of tribal governments during the term of the MOU. Secretary Bingman and staff were kept apprised of Mr. Leonard’s interactions at weekly and bi-weekly meetings where the office would provide Mr. Leonard additional direction.”
Bingman’s letter also said the Secretary of State’s office has historically been the primary representative to foreign and tribal governments.