WASHINGTON — Transcripts released Saturday in the impeachment inquiry show Ambassador Gordon Sondland playing a central role in President Donald Trump’s effort to push Ukraine to conduct political investigations as a condition for receiving needed military aid.
The fresh details come from hundreds of pages of testimony from Tim Morrison, a former top official at the National Security Council. They contradict much of the ambassador’s own testimony behind closed doors. Both Morrison and Sondland are expected to testify publicly before the House next week.
While some, including Trump himself, have begun to question Sondland’s knowledge of events, Morrison told House investigators the ambassador “related to me he was acting — he was discussing these matters with the President.”
Morrison, a longtime Republican defense hawk in Washington, largely confirmed testimony from current and former officials testifying in the impeachment inquiry. But his account also provided new insight on what others have called a shadow diplomacy being run by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, often at odds with U.S. national security interests.
As Sondland, Giuliani and others tried to persuade new Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch the investigations Trump wanted of his Democratic rivals, Morrison said he “tried to stay away.”
Morrison called this the Burisma “bucket” — investigations into the family of Joe Biden and the role of Democrats in the 2016 election. It’s a reference to the gas company in Ukraine where Biden’s son, Hunter, served on the board
In particular, Morrison described a Sept. 1 meeting Sondland held with a top Zelenskiy aide, Andriy Yermak, on the sidelines of a summit in Warsaw.
Morrison said he witnessed the exchange and that afterward Sondland bounded across the room to tell him what was said.
Sondland told him that “what could help them move the aid was if the prosecutor general would go to the mike and announce that he was opening the Burisma investigation,” Morrison testified. The prosecutor general is Ukraine’s top legal official.
“My concern was what Gordon was proposing about getting the Ukrainians pulled into our politics,” Morrison said. He added: “It was the first time something like this had been injected as a condition on the release of the assistance.”
Morrison, who announced Oct. 30 he would be stepping down from the NSC, was brought to the White House by then-national security adviser John Bolton.
Within hours of the conversation in Warsaw, Morrison called Bolton and the top U.S. official in Ukraine, William Taylor. He told them both about the conversation and his concerns about it.
Bolton told him: “Stay out of it, brief the lawyers.”
For weeks, top administration aides had been struggling to understand why the $391 million in security aid for Ukraine was being delayed. There’s longstanding bipartisan support for backing up the young democracy bordering an aggressive Russia.
Others have testified they were being told by officials at the Office and Management and Budget it was being stalled at the direction of the president’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
A few days later, on Sept. 7, Sondland was on the phone telling Morrison he had just gotten off a call with the president.
“I remember this because he actually made the comment that it was easier for him to get ahold of the President than to get ahold of me,” Morrison said.
Morrison said Sondland related that Trump assured him there were no strings being attached to the military aid for Ukraine.
“The president told him there was no quid pro quo, but President Zelenskiy must announce the opening of the investigations and he should want to do it,” Morrison recalled Sondland saying.
Morrison had what he called a “sinking feeling” — that the aid might not be released.
“I also did not think it was a good idea for the Ukrainian President to — at this point I had a better understanding — involve himself in our politics,” he said.
Only days later, after three congressional committees said they were launching inquiries into efforts by Trump and Giuliani to investigate the Bidens, was the money released.
Morrison said that at a Sept. 11 meeting at the White House that Trump was persuaded to release the money. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio “convinced the president that the aid should be disbursed immediately,” said Morrison, who was briefed about the meeting but did not attend. “The case was made to the president that it was the appropriate and prudent thing to do.”
Transcripts were also released from the testimony of Jennifer Williams, a special adviser to Pence, that raised new questions about how much Pence knew about the alleged trade-off that’s central to the impeachment inquiry.
For Ukraine, a former Soviet republic situated between NATO allies and Russia, the $391 million in aid is its lifeline to the West.
The money is symbolic, the ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified this week, but also substantial.
It includes $250 million in Pentagon funding and an additional $141 million for the State Department, including for maritime security in the Black Sea, aimed at identifying and tracking Russian ships and aircraft.
“Supporting Ukraine is the right thing to do,” Yovanovitch testified. “If Russia prevails and Ukraine falls to Russian dominion, we can expect to see other attempts by Russia to expand its territory and influence.”
OKLAHOMA CITY — As the calendar counts down to Jan. 1, Gov. Kevin Stitt and tribes with gaming compacts appear far from resolving their disagreement over renewal of the compacts and rates paid by the tribes.
The tribes insist their compacts automatically renew Jan. 1 and want the governor to agree before negotiations can occur on changes to their rates.
Stitt, on the other hand, believes the compacts expire Jan. 1 and wants to negotiate new, significantly higher rates as part of a renewal.
Tribes currently pay the state 4% to 10% of their gaming revenues in exchange for exclusivity rights to offer gaming.
In fiscal year 2018, that meant more than $138 million for the state, the bulk of which goes to education. The figure is based on almost $2.3 billion in revenue the tribes generated from gaming.
From fiscal year 2005 through 2018, education received slightly more than $1.2 billion from the tribes’ payments to the state.
The stalemate came to a head on Thursday with Stitt holding a Capitol press conference to lay out his position and garner public support. That was immediately followed by a tribal response near the south steps of the Capitol.
And both sides dug in on their respective positions.
The issue heated up in July, when Stitt wrote an editorial piece in which he said tribes needed to pay more. That didn’t sit well with some tribal leaders, who felt it was not a proper way to negotiate with sovereign nations. They also expressed some surprise, saying Stitt used misleading figures on rates.
They believe current rates are adequate, but say they are open to discuss the issue.
Stitt said that he apologized in a meeting with tribes after the editorial if some took it wrong.
“It is my job as governor to communicate to Oklahomans,” Stitt said Friday.
An Oct. 28 meeting between Attorney General Mike Hunter, representing the state, and tribes didn’t produce a solution. Both sides walked away frustrated.
The compacts were negotiated in 2004, when Brad Henry was governor. Henry, who now does consulting work for the Chickasaw Nation on issues other than gaming, said the compacts were designed to automatically renew.
He said it was understood at the time that the gaming industry would take off. State leaders wanted to avoid a predicament where tribes asked for lower rates because the income to the state had gone up as the industry blossomed, Henry has said.
“We felt like it was best for the state that they could stand on the compacts and they would automatically renew,” Henry said.
Henry is among those appearing in television and print commercials outlining tribal contributions to the state. Tribes have invested their profits into health care, infrastructure, education and other projects.
While Stitt, serving his first term, may be a popular governor, tribes have quite a bit of power as well and are active politically.
Stitt said he is willing to negotiate with individual tribes.
During his Thursday press conference, Stitt pointed to the 25% rates paid by tribes in New York, Connecticut and Florida, saying that should be a starting point for negotiations.
“I am willing to sit down and negotiate and talk about why it should be less than that or more than that,” Stitt said on Friday. “It is a great starting point. There is a good case that that is the market.”
Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, said it is difficult to make a straight comparison with rates in other states because so many different variables come into play.
Morgan said Stitt is “cherry picking data” and using the highest rate in an effort to make his case. The state has to provide something of value to the tribes to get higher rates, he said.
Both Stitt and the tribes are interested in discussing the addition of sports betting to the mix.
Currently, the compacts cover Class III gaming, which includes slot machines. The state gets no revenue from Class II games, which include electronic bingo.
Stitt said he is not interested in going after Class II games, which in 2016 represented 43% of the gaming machines at gaming facilities.
Morgan said what has been noticeably absent is input from lawmakers, who will have to sign off on changes such as adding sports betting.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, declined to weigh in, but his office is researching what possible role the Legislature may have in the compact negotiations, said Aaron Cooper, his spokesman.
Likewise, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, declined to comment.
Stephen Greetham, senior counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires the tribes to have a compact with the state. After Jan. 1, the tribes will still have a compact because it automatically renews “so there is no issue,” Greetham said.
Stitt could pursue an action to have the compact declared expired, which would require going to court for a declaration.
Such an action puts jobs in jeopardy and would not be beneficial to the state, Greetham said.
It wasn’t long ago that Broken Arrow Public Schools teacher Kourtney Pierce lived with her parents and survived paycheck to paycheck.
With a beat-up car at the end of its life, Pierce didn’t know how much longer she could keep working at one of the lowest-paying districts in the Tulsa metro. Then a pair of monumental raises changed everything.
The fifth-grade teacher at Oak Crest Elementary moved out and bought a house after Oklahoma passed a minimum $5,000 statewide teacher pay increase in 2018.
This year legislators approved a second raise averaging $1,220. Broken Arrow sweetened the deal by more than doubling the amount awarded to its teachers.
Now Pierce has a new car and a new house. She feels a stability that’s been missing since she began teaching six years ago.
“I’m finally financially stable,” she told the Tulsa World on Friday. “Like, last night I went to the Old Dominion concert. So now I’m able to have fun but still pay all my bills and not have to worry about how I’m going to eat the last six days of the month.”
A Tulsa World analysis found 11 of 17 local districts now pay starting teachers at least $40,000 in total compensation after implementing the latest state-mandated raise. Only two — Owasso and Bixby — met that mark last year.
Many districts approved an average increase of $1,220 as included in the state budget. Others produced even higher raises than what was required through conservative budgeting and taking advantage of new common education funding.
Broken Arrow secured the largest raise among the 17 districts with a 10% pay boost, moving from last place to 11th in starting base salary and from 12th to third in total compensation.
The district also joined Bixby and Bartlesville in covering teachers’ full 7% retirement contribution. Although the practice is customary in the Oklahoma City metro, most districts here either pay a portion of the expense or none of it.
Superintendent Janet Dunlop said the state budget’s inclusion of $74 million for school operations allowed Broken Arrow to prioritize teacher salaries this year without sacrificing elsewhere.
Mounting budget cuts over the past decade forced public school leaders across Oklahoma to make tough decisions about how to spend limited operational funds. Was it better to maintain small class sizes or offer competitive pay?
“We all chose different paths,” Dunlop said. “There wasn’t a right or wrong way. So when other districts were continuing to offer a little bit of a bump in pay each year, we held off. We would offer a stipend if we could, but we did not put anything into the salary scale.”
That choice led to Broken Arrow falling behind its neighbors, making it harder to compete for teachers despite favorable classroom conditions.
When the state added additional operational dollars to the funding formula this year, district officials decided to “dump every penny” into paying educators, Dunlop said.
The superintendent has seen a tremendous difference in school climate. Teachers are happier. They feel appreciated.
But it’s also understood that better paychecks won’t be enough to maintain morale in the long term. More funding is needed to get schools back to where they used to be.
“The teacher pay raises were fantastic,” Dunlop said. “But I don’t want anyone to be misled in thinking they take the place of also having some additional operational funding, because we can’t spend the raises on anything else. So all those other gaps that came from 10 years of budget cuts are still there.”
Sand Springs jumped from 11th to sixth in total compensation for starting teachers after approving an 8% increase — the second highest among the local districts.
It accomplished that feat despite not covering any of teachers’ full 7% retirement contribution, which is deducted from their salaries. Instead the district decided the best way to compensate teachers was to pay them that money directly, according to Superintendent Sherry Durkee.
Sand Springs focused on boosting salaries this year to fulfill its goal of hiring quality teachers for every classroom, Durkee said. That can’t happen without a competitive rate of pay.
“We felt like it was the right thing to do,” she said, “and we’ll continue as we can to make sure we’re putting pieces in place to attract good talent.”
Meanwhile, Bixby continues to offer the second highest pay in the area. The district’s starting total compensation of $40,120 trails only Owasso by about $570.
Because Bixby fully covers their 7% retirement contribution, teachers there don’t have to worry about it coming out of their base salary. To make up for the extra cost, the district required teachers to work an extra 30 minutes on Fridays.
Superintendent Rob Miller stressed the importance of offering competitive pay, seeing that it plays a big role in where teachers decide to work.
Bixby, like others, has struggled to find a balance between addressing class size issues and improving compensation. Last year, district officials added about $1.4 million in new positions to keep up with growing student enrollment, lessening the limited funds available for teacher pay. This year’s state budget has allowed them to better address both needs.
However, Miller said there’s still a lot to be desired when it comes to affording additional teachers, counselors, support staff raises and upgraded technology for classrooms.
“It’s a challenge because even with the increased funding over the last two years, most of that has gone to teacher pay,” he said. “So we’re still squeezing pennies as much as we can to try to meet all of those goals at the same time.”
Tulsa Public Schools became the final district to implement the raise after approving an average increase of $2,084 earlier this month. Because raises aren’t distributed evenly across the teacher pay scale, not everyone got the same amount.
Some, particularly those higher on the pay scale, received the minimum $1,220 secured in the state budget.
Tulsa Classroom Teacher Association President Patti Ferguson-Palmer, whose bargaining unit began negotiating with TPS in July, said she took exception to complaints about veteran teachers not receiving as much as their newer colleagues.
For one, veteran teachers received way more from the 2018 raise, she said. The goal this year was to bring Tulsa’s starting salary to $40,000 to catch up to the suburban districts.
Ferguson-Palmer said she also wanted to see larger raises across the board. But after months of negotiating and listening to concerns from TPS about the imminent $20 million shortfall, she believes her team did the best it could.
“What we’ve gained over the last two years, that’s historic,” she said. “I’m going to go into retirement a whole lot better off than I would have years ago. I think that’s what people don’t realize. There is no way that TCTA would agree with screwing veteran teachers. That would be shooting ourselves in the foot.
“But no, we have too much respect for them. They got $8,000 last year. We tried to give more to the people this year who got less last year. That’s equity.”