After a 40-minute executive session, the Oklahoma Veterans Commission voted 5-1 to terminate the employment of controversial Department of Veterans Affairs director Joel Kintsel, who had refused to attend meetings of his agency’s governing body in 2023.
“It never had to come to this,” Chairman Robert Allen said before the vote. “As we meet here today, this agency faces critical issues. We have found ourselves distracted by other issues.”
Kintsel, a former parliamentarian of the Oklahoma House, was not in attendance Friday. For months, he had argued that three members of the commission were improperly appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, whom he unsuccessfully challenged in the June 2022 Republican primary for governor. Kintsel alleged massive “corruption” by Stitt’s administration, including unverified claims that an ODVA computer was improperly accessed by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, and he clashed with new members of the Veterans Commission installed by Stitt throughout 2022.
Meanwhile, those commissioners heard a report Feb. 16 from the state’s chief information officer that veterans’ personal identification information is being stored in datasets hosted outside of the state network. Kintsel did not attend that Veterans Commission meeting, nor others in January. At one meeting, other ODVA staff members were left to answer questions about the delayed and over-cost Oklahoma Veterans Home project in Sallisaw, which appears to need about $21 million in supplemental funding from the Legislature owing to issues with the original architect and agency cost estimates. Kintsel’s absence from that meeting infuriated several ODVA staff members, who had already been irked by Kintsel’s leave of absence in 2022 to run for governor.
Still, Kintsel maintained that he would not recognize the legitimacy of Veterans Commission appointees Robert Allen, Daniel Orr and Ted Perry. State statute says the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Disabled American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are to suggest five names of their members for seats on the commission. But although Allen, Orr and Perry were members of those organizations respectively, they had not been recommended for appointment. Stitt noted that the organizations had not followed another part of the statute requiring annual reports to the Legislature, and a challenge to Allen’s appointment saw the judge twice rule in favor of the Stitt administration on motions limiting the plaintiffs’ arguments.
On Feb. 22, Stitt moved Allen to an at-large appointment. Friday, less than an hour before the Veterans Commission meeting, Stitt said Orr and Perry had been instructed not to vote so as to potentially avoid a legal challenge against the action.
“The Legislature, when I met with them, they said, ‘Hey governor, it would be better if you just kept those two people that are in question on the sideline.’ So we asked them to abstain from any vote,” Stitt said.
But with Commissioner Heather McEver casting the lone vote against terminating Kintsel’s employment, Perry ended up voting in favor of the motion, potentially setting up a legal challenge from Kintsel, an attorney.
Kintsel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Joel Kintsel fired, commission discussing interim director
In January 2018, several lawmakers supported Kintsel’s move to become deputy director of ODVA. 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.
“It appears to me that a lot of those issues still exist at ODVA,” Vice Chairman Sidney Ellington said.
At 10:56 a.m. Friday, moments after the vote to terminate Kintsel, the commission went back into executive session to discuss hiring an interim executive director. Twenty minutes later, commissioners returned to open session and voted to hire retired Rear Admiral Greg Slavonic, a former undersecretary of the U.S. Navy, as interim executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.
The vote to hire Slavonic passed 5-0, with McEver abstaining.
Commissioners also voted to terminate the employment of ODVA deputy director Sarah Lane, who had previously submitted a letter of resignation but then rescinded it to remain as Kintsel’s second in command.
(Update: This article was updated at 11:30 a.m. and again at 1:45 p.m. to include additional information about Friday’s meeting.)