, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

November 24, 2012

Judge's recusal complicates Okla. Youth Expo suit

— OKLAHOMA CITY — The recusal of an Oklahoma County judge from a lawsuit filed by two state lawmakers that challenges the appropriation of $2 million in state tax dollars to a private, nonprofit livestock show has thrown a new wrinkle into an already complicated case.

In September, Republican Reps. Mike Reynolds of Oklahoma City and Mike Ritze of Broken Arrow filed a lawsuit against Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese and other state officials alleging that the appropriation of state tax dollars by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to the Oklahoma Youth Expo livestock show is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money and is unconstitutional.

The lawmakers allege that the Youth Expo has no enforceable claim for the state to appropriate money to it and that agriculture officials have no legal authority to enter into an agreement to operate the livestock show.

Reese has said the appropriation is entirely legal and that a contract between the state and the Youth Expo was made in accordance with guidelines that authorize a public-private partnership between the state and private entities to help farmers and ranchers promote agriculture-related endeavors. The Youth Expo's website says it is recognized as the largest youth event in the state and this year it had record-breaking attendance with more than 7,000 exhibitors.

Last month, the two state lawmakers escalated the legal dispute with letters delivered to Gov. Mary Fallin and other state officials demanding that they recover the money, which was appropriated to the livestock show in August. The next livestock event is scheduled March 16-26.

District Judge Bill Graves was scheduled to hear a series of motions in the case on Nov, 29, including motions to dismiss the lawmaker's lawsuit filed on behalf of state Treasurer Ken Miller, Secretary of State Glenn Coffee and others. But Graves, himself a former state representative, stepped aside from the case last week, putting the hearing on hold.

Reynolds said Friday that the case has been reassigned to District Judge Lisa Davis, who set a hearing in the case for Dec. 18.

Reynolds and Ritze have long criticized the appropriation of state tax dollars for what they maintain are non-government related purposes and have said the use of state tax dollars to support the Youth Expo is a prime example.

"I think this is a blatant violation of the state Constitution," Reynolds said. He said state money has been transferred to the Youth Expo for at least 10 years and in excess of $4 million has been appropriated.

Among other things, the lawmakers' lawsuit says a general appropriations bill adopted by the Legislature in May included appropriations for the Agriculture Department but did not include a specific $2 million appropriation to the Youth Expo or even mention the expo by name. In fact, according to the suit, the measure doesn't list an appropriation of any kind to the livestock show.

Motions to dismiss the case say officials named in it are immune from the lawsuit. Assistant Attorney General Nancy Zerr, who is representing the state officials, declined to discuss the case Friday.

"High-level government executives and officials must feel free to act on their discretional decisions as they see fit, without being subject to influence by the threat of harassing suit," the motions state. "Such officials are generally accorded immunity from suit, as long as they are acting in good faith and not in a willful and wanton manner."

The lawmakers have also filed a motion to hold the Youth Expo in indirect contempt of court for failing to produce a variety of documents spanning several years in an attempt by the lawmakers to account for how the state money was spent.

"They're required by their contract to deliver reports to the state Auditor's Office. And we haven't seen reports that have any kind of meaningful accountability," Reynolds said.

Last week, the Youth Expo filed legal papers objecting to the request for documents and the contempt citation.  It says a subpoena filed in the case sought 28 categories of documents covering "an unlimited period of years," which "contained confidential, financial and personal information." It also complains that the subpoena was not properly served and the Youth Expo did not have enough time to respond.

Meanwhile, Reynolds said the lawmakers have received no response from Fallin and other state officials who were sent letters demanding that they recover this year's appropriation to the Youth Expo.

The demand letters were filed under so-called "qui tam" guidelines that allow private citizens to initiate legal action against a person or company that allegedly violates the law in connection with a government contract. A total of 146 Oklahoma taxpayers — including Reynolds — authorized the demand letters with their signed and notarized verifications.

He said the lawmakers will give the state officials between 60 and 90 days to respond before taking further legal action.

A spokesman for Fallin has said she supports the Youth Expo and believes it supports the mission of the Department of Agriculture.

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