Editor's note: This story has been edited to include a statement from the Comanche chairman that was released three days after publication.
The leaders of the Osage and Comanche nations appeared to be singing a different tune about gaming compacts in communications with previous governor Mary Fallin’s office.
Public records obtained through the Oklahoma Open Records Act show Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and Comanche Chairman William Nelson wrote to Fallin in November 2016 and February 2017, respectively, seeking negotiations for new gaming compacts between the State of Oklahoma and tribal governments.
In their letters, the tribal leaders said current gaming compacts expire at the end of 2019, which is a different position than they have taken in an ongoing dispute with current Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The current issue arose when Stitt announced this summer that he believes the compacts expire on Jan. 1, 2020, and that “exclusivity” fees paid by the tribes should be raised. Nearly three dozen tribes, including the Osage and Comanche, signed a resolution in late August stating they believe that the gaming compacts with the state, in place for 15 years, automatically renew, and called on Stitt to acknowledge as much as a “necessary step” before they would renegotiate terms.
But two to three years ago, it was the Osage and Comanche leaders seeking renegotiations of the gaming compacts they both called “dated.”
“As you know, the current gaming compacts expire at the end of 2019,” Standing Bear wrote to Fallin on Nov. 15, 2016. “This compact has historically been a great benefit to both the State and Tribal governments. However, the current compact is dated and is not suitable for the current and future business environment of gaming in Oklahoma. I believe it is time to initiate negotiations to jointly endeavor to create a new compact document that will move our respective governments forward for the next decade and beyond.”
And Nelson wrote this to Fallin on Feb. 6, 2017: “As you know, the current gaming compacts expire at the end of 2019. This time period is only (22) months away. ... Logic tells us the current compact is dated and is not conducive for current and future business environments of gaming in Oklahoma. I believe it’s time to initiate negotiations to create a new compact document that will move our respective governments forward for years to come. It’s the hope of the Comanche nation that negotiations can be established and we both collectively come to a mutual agreement that benefits all of our citizens.”
The leaders of both tribes were asked to comment on the apparent change in position.
Speaking on behalf of Osage Chief Standing Bear, Tulsa attorney Dean Luthey said the current gaming compacts include a provision for automatic renewal on Jan. 1, 2020, which the Osage Nation believes will be met so that the current compacts won’t actually expire.
“If certain circumstances or conditions exist, there is automatic renewal. The continuing licensing of certain horsetracks to provide electronic gaming ... They’ve (the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission) issued licenses and regulations for that type of activity. That is the state action that satisfies the renewal conditions,” Luthey said.
Asked to clarify further, Luthey said the automatic renewal of the tribal gaming compacts hinges on the final approval of renewed electronic gaming licenses for certain horsetracks by the state Horse Racing Commission.
“There are existing licenses (for electronic gaming at those horsetracks) in place. We expect renewal licenses to be delivered and in place effective the first of the year,” Luthey said. “We expect those licenses to be renewed given the most recent action by the horse racing commission. If there is not, the compact automatic renewal condition appears to not be operative.”
Nelson, chairman of the Comanche Business Committee, said: "The Comanche Nation’s 2017 letter requesting good-faith negotiations should not be conflated as any sort of agreement with the State’s incorrect legal position that the compacts do not automatically renew at the end of the year. In fact, the Nation unequivocally believes the compacts automatically renew at the end of the year. ...
"Any future negotiations between the Governor and tribes ought to be conducted through good-faith government-to-government negotiations, and not saber rattling and legal wrangling through legal threats and adversarial processes,” the Comanche official wrote in a statement.
Public records reveal only the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, which hasn’t had a gaming facility since 2013, has agreed with Stitt’s position that the current gaming compacts expire at the end of 2019. That message came in a letter dated Aug. 19 from Klint Cowan, attorney general of the Keetoowah Band. Stitt’s office was asked to comment on the apparent contradiction in positions by the Osage and Comanche leaders, but instead only responded to the governor’s current outlook on the overall issue of renegotiating.
Stitt’s communications director, Baylee Lakey, told the Tulsa World, “The governor appreciates the ongoing dialogue with various Oklahoma tribes and is hopeful that we can come to an agreement on the compacts that is a win-win for both the tribes and all four million Oklahomans.”
Staff writer Barbara Hoberock contributed to this report
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma's attorney general has agreed to pay a Michigan law firm up to $250,000 to help represent the state in negotiations with Oklahoma-based Native American tribes over compacts that allow gambling.