NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) — Over 100 plaintiffs are being represented in a Qui Tam lawsuit filed in Cleveland County on Monday to demand recovery of more than $42,000,000 from various engineering firms after the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority was found guilty of violating the Open Meetings Act in December 2022.
The latest lawsuit alleges that since the judge’s December ruling voided the OTA board’s previous votes on the contracts, $42,097,572.05 was spent unlawfully and should be returned by the engineering firms.
The board held a meeting last week to reapprove those contracts.
“It’s very important in regard of the Open Meeting lawsuit’s ruling that we bring corrective actions back to the board as expeditiously as possible,” said Secretary of Transportation and OTA Executive Director Tim Gatz in comments released by OTA representatives, on his behalf. “We believe these steps are compliant with what Judge Olsen found to be lacking in previous agenda items.”
While the transportation agency said the re-approval is all part of a plan to correct the violation, opponents said it is another effort to steamroll any future opposition.
Protestors said the OTA is trying to circumvent the Open Meetings Violation Lawsuit by re-approving all previously invalidated contracts.
“They don’t agree with the ruling. They don’t think they have to fix anything. And what they’re doing right now is rubber stamping the contracts again after a year and adding more money to those contracts and telling their contractors go full steam ahead,” said Amy Cerato, a plaintiff.
Friday, January 6, 2023, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority filed an appeal of the judgment in the Open Meeting Act lawsuit out of the Cleveland County District Court. The appeal cites several issues of error, including the Court’s finding of “willful” OMA violations by the OTA.
The OTA’s appeal also challenges the court’s position that agenda items lacked sufficient details. The Authority maintains the information was OMA compliant for this preliminary engineering design stage. Board approval on preliminary work is required to identify and confirm new alignments, construction cost estimates, and right-of-way boundaries for OTA’s 15-year, long-range expansion and improvement plan.
Furthermore, the filing points to an improper ruling related to the Board’s approval of a line of credit in January 2022, subsequently terminated by the Board in June. Because it was terminated and never used by OTA, it does not exist and the Board’s initial approval cannot be ruled invalid under OMA. With nothing to invalidate, OTA is requesting it be dismissed. While OTA has appealed the Court’s decision, it has full and complete respect for the District Court’s judgement. The Authority has fully complied with the Court’s findings by initially pausing work after its decision and with the Board’s action Tuesday to correct the OMA violations as is required under legal precedent.
Concerning the new filing and demands by the plaintiffs seeking OTA’s engineering consultants return payments for services rendered, OTA has not yet received the filing and cannot comment on the details; however, OTA is appealing that judgement – the basis of the new lawsuit. Further, public officials and state agencies, like OTA, are required to act in accordance with opinions issued by the Oklahoma Attorney General. OTA’s Board complied with Attorney General opinion 1981 OK AG 214 when it fully reconsidered and voted to approve the contracts pursuant to OMA compliant agenda items at its January 3 regular meeting. The Attorney General states in its opinion, “If a public body concludes that it may have violated the provisions of the Open Meeting Act, in a willful manner, the public body must fully reconsider those matters acted upon in violation of the Act. Such reconsideration, of course, must be done in compliance with the Act.” The OTA did just that to rehabilitate what the Court found to be deficient with action taken at the January and February 2022 meetings.
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.Oklahoma Turnpike Authority
Read the full suit below: