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Lawsuit targets turnpike authority

Steve Lackmeyer

The Oklahoman USA TODAY NETWORK

A lawsuit filed Monday against Oklahoma Turnpike Authority commissioners accuses them of being a “rubber stamp” body that has abdicated its oversight role. The lawsuit also alleges authority commissioners are violating a court order that ruled $60 million in contracts were invalid when they “willfully” violated the state’s open meetings act.

The taxpayer lawsuit, also known as a “Qui Tam” filing, asks the Cleveland County Court to order engineering firms to return more than $42 million to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and to prohibit Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz and turnpike authority Deputy Director Joe Echelle from making further payments on the invalidated

See LAWSUIT, Page 2A

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contracts.

The suit claims the payments fall under Qui Tam statutes providing taxpayers the ability to recover fraudulent government payments. At issue is whether the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority can continue work on ACCESS Oklahoma, a 15-year, $5 billion toll road expansion and improvement plan that includes new toll roads north and east of Norman that are being challenged by hundreds of residents who fear they may lose their homes.

Attorney Stan Ward said 100 taxpayers, as required, gave the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority prior notice to recover the money paid to the engineering firms. Commissioners instead followed a request by Gatz and Echelle last week to ratify the contracts ruled invalid by Seminole County Judge Tim Olsen.

“How do you ratify an invalid contract,” Ward asked. “We have an agency that is out of control. They did not want to invite public scrutiny.”

The turnpike authority, meanwhile, announced Monday it is filing an appeal of Olsen’s ruling. Authority spokeswoman Brenda Perry Clark said the authority had not yet received the filing and could not comment on the demand to recovery money from the engineering firms.

“The plaintiffs’ new demand is an abuse of the judicial system in order to improperly threaten and pressure public officials and its consultants to stop a much-needed public transportation improvement and expansion project,” Perry Clark said.

Olsen ruled in December that the turnpike authority “willfully” violated the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act when it shared details of the proposed new toll roads with engineers and some supportive city and county officials but withheld the same details from January and February meetings in which commissioners were asked to approve contracts for the new turnpikes.

Ward said the agenda items for the engineering contracts only referred to “various turnpike projects.”

“All you have to do is read the agenda items for Jan. 25 and Feb. 22,” Ward said. “The statute says a person of ordinary intelligence and education should be able to discern what the business is to be conducted. We had people with high school degrees, college degrees and Ph.D.s who couldn’t discern it.”

The wording, Ward said, did not tell the public that the work was related to new toll road construction or whether it involved the 11 existing turnpikes. He also argued the agency’s efforts against being transparent were shown by records of the turnpike authority paying a consultant to acquire internet addresses that could have been used to oppose ACCESS Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority pledged to be transparent when Gatz and Gov. Kevin Stitt unveiled ACCESS Oklahoma in February. The Oklahoman requested details of the improvements, including a map of proposed new toll roads for weeks before the meeting but did not get the information until the agency launched an ACCESS Oklahoma website during the February meeting.

The turnpike authority said the information given at the January and February meetings was compliant with the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act because preliminary work was required to identify and confirm new alignments, cost estimates and right-of-way boundaries.

Perry Clark said Olsen’s ruling also was based on the commissioners’ approval of a line of credit for the work that was later terminated when the Council on Bond Oversight ruled it couldn’t be used for the new toll roads while they were being challenged in court. That lawsuit alleges the new toll roads do not comply with routes authorized by lawmakers in 1987.

That question is being heard by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which must validate the requested bonds before the turnpike authority can proceed with construction. Turnpike authority commissioners last week approved amendments that bring the total contracts for ACCESS Oklahoma work to $156 million. The turnpike authority, as of last week, had paid $60 million of the $156 million using funds previously allocated to capital maintenance projects, Perry Clark said.

Poe & Associates, one of the engineering firms named in the lawsuit filed Monday, was told to start work again on Friday. They are evaluating which projects to resume based on priorities, which include emphasis on widening and access improvements along the Kilpatrick, Turner and Will Rogers turnpikes. Gatz said last week some work may not be resumed immediately and added the Norman-area expansions won’t be built until the “tail end” of ACCESS Oklahoma.

Ward, who previously represented a successful Open Meetings Act lawsuit against the city of Norman, said he believes the case against the turnpike authority is much stronger than the one against Norman. He said the turnpike authority has not upheld its pledge to be transparent.

“If they wanted to be crystal clear about it, they could have been,” Ward said. “But they decided not to.”

Steve Lackmeyer started at The Oklahoman in 1990. He is an award-winning reporter, columnist and author who covers downtown Oklahoma City, urban development and economics for The Oklahoman. Contact him at slackmeyer@ oklahoman.com. Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.

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