The chairman of a state board claims Gov. Kevin Stitt’s chief of staff urged members to call a vote to remove Joel Kintsel from his job at the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs as Kintsel prepared to announce a run for governor.

“So how do you all feel about an agency head that reports — ultimately reports to the governor, running against the governor?” Stitt’s Chief of Staff Bond Payne asked the leaders of the Oklahoma Veterans Commission at a February meeting at the governor’s office. The Frontier obtained an audio recording of the meeting. 

Payne called Veterans Commission Chairman Larry Van Schuyver and Vice Chairman Pete Costilow to the meeting to discuss his concerns that Kintsel was planning to run for governor. The commission oversees the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, where Kintsel had served as executive director since 2019. 

In the meeting, Payne said he was “not asking (them) to hold a meeting and call a vote” rather he was just asking them “to look into this” and relaying what “the governor’s concerns are.”

But Van Schuyver left the meeting with the impression Payne “wanted us to get rid of (Kintsel),” he said in an interview with The Frontier.

At the time, Kintsel’s run for office was only a rumor. He announced in April that he would challenge Stitt in the June Republican primary. Kintsel’s campaign did not respond by deadline to requests for comment.

In the conversation, Payne told the commissioners he believed it was a conflict of interest for Kintsel to be considering a run for governor.

“I mean, just from a practical standpoint, I wonder how someone could run for governor and run an agency at the same time, notwithstanding the conflict of interest,” Payne said. “Just from a functional aspect of how I’m allocating my time.”

Costilow, who did not return phone calls on Wednesday, said he believed Kintsel “probably shouldn’t be in the job” if he announced a run for governor. Payne said he would “certainly agree with that” but then went a step further.

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“I don’t think declaring or announcing is necessarily the trigger point,” Payne said. “I think if you guys determine that he’s running, whether he announced it or not, that would be enough.”

Kintsel took a leave of absence from the Department of Veterans Affairs for the duration of the campaign after announcing his run for office in April. The Veterans Commission approved the leave.

Payne did not respond to a reporter’s phone calls on Wednesday. 

When asked questions about the conversation between Payne and the commissioners, Carly Atchison, Stitt’s spokeswoman, said “it is entirely appropriate that Joel Kintsel take a leave of absence from serving in the Stitt administration while he runs a campaign against Governor Stitt.” 

Payne questioned Kintsel’s ability to run the agency while considering a run for governor because he heard “he’s been promised a lot of money by special interests.” He also said that he believes Kintsel “is not really running and he’s just going to be a straw man and let them funnel money and ads under his name.”

The chief of staff also said that Kintsel was late submitting the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs’ federal priorities for grants and legislation to a state lobbyist in Washington D.C. and questioned if he was committed to running the agency.

Payne asked the commissioners if Kintsel was trying to “make the governor look bad to the congressional delegation,” and said that if he was running for governor, he might use the agency to make decisions “that would be contrary or detrimental to his opponent.”

In May, an Oklahoma County grand jury found Stitt put “improper political pressure” on his appointees to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. 

Stitt has since asked a judge to strike that finding from the grand jury report.

“I personally feel that they’re trying to do what they did to the Pardon and Parole Board,” Van Schuyver said. “They’re talking to the commissioners and trying to put people in there that will do exactly what they tell them when they tell them and veterans don’t do that.”

Van Schuyver said he feels veterans are being hurt because the commissioners and director won’t “bend over for the governor.”

“If Joel wants to try and beat Stitt in a race, let him do it,” he said. “Let him run on his record. Don’t try to hammer a guy just because he’s doing his constitutional right to run for office.”

Reese Gorman is a political investigations reporter based in Oklahoma City. His dog Khaleesi is his best friend and he averages around six cups of coffee a day. Contact: // // (210)268-8694