Jan. 9—A local attorney who sued the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority for Open Meeting Act violations and won is now suing the agency and its contractors.
Attorney Stan Ward filed the latest lawsuit Monday on behalf of more than 200 residents who would be affected by proposed toll roads along Indian Hills Road and the Lake Thunderbird Watershed.
Ward is asking a judge to force contractors to refund nearly $42 million paid by OTA for work on the project. He has said the contracts are invalid because the agency violated the act and must "start over."
The toll roads are part of a $5 billion, 15-year plan known as ACCESS announced by the authority in February 2022.
A judge ruled last month that OTA was guilty of willful violations of the act because it failed to mention the turnpike plan in its January or February meeting agendas.
Ward contends any actions taken during those meetings related to the turnpike plan is not valid.
Ward, in the petition filed Monday, is asking for contractors to "make restitution to Plaintiffs so that the OTA is put back into a position in which it stood before the engineering defendants were unjustly enriched."
On Jan. 3, OTA reauthorized those contracts with wording officials said complied with the judge's ruling, adding the contracts were never invalidated but the action taken to approve them was.
Ward disagreed and said that the action would be separate from the contract is a circular argument that amounted to a "distinction without a difference."
OTA spokesperson Brenda Perry Clark said Monday she has not received a copy of the lawsuit, but questioned the basis of the new petition after the agency appealed the Open Meeting Act ruling Friday.
"OTA is appealing that judgement — the basis of the new lawsuit, Clark told The Transcript in a statement. "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."
Contractors named in the latest lawsuit are Poe & Associates; The Benham Group; CEC Corporation; Cowan Group; CP&Y; EST Inc; Garver LLC; MacArthur Associated Consultants; MKEC Engineering; Olsson Inc; Hudson Price Engineering & Inspection; and TEIM Design.
The lawsuit also names state Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz, OTA Deputy Director Joe Echelle and the agency's board members.
On Dec. 7, Ward sent a letter to agency officials demanding they recover the money paid to contractors.
Days later, the agency's attorney said it needed more time — until Jan. 3 — to determine if that action was appropriate, Ward said Monday in his petition to the court.
Instead, the agency reauthorized the contracts, Ward wrote to the court, adding OTA officials "falsely claimed that the contracts were entered into with 'good faith.'"
In a letter to contractors dated Jan. 7, Ward told them they would face a lawsuit unless they refunded the money by Jan. 13.
"If any of you wish to avoid the dollar and time expense of litigation you should consider agreeing to return the monies wrongfully paid to your firm under the invalid contracts," the letter read.
"If any of you want to pursue this, you should refer to your respective firm's total as it appears on the second spreadsheet and remit such amount to "Stan Ward Attorney Qui Tam Trust Account."
Ward's letter continues: "If you do so by the end of the business day Friday, January 13, 2023, and confirm that you will not be seeking further payments under the invalid contracts, we would be willing to withhold serving summons and to dismiss your firm from forthcoming suit."
What is a Qui Tam lawsuit?
The nature of the lawsuit, Qui Tam, is an action taken by residents to act collectively as a private attorney general, Ward has said.
It requires at least 100 registered voters to sign a letter, but the plaintiff's letter bears 225 signatures for the court.
Ward told plaintiffs last month following the judge's ruling that in order for a Qui Tam lawsuit to be filed, first they had to "make a demand on the agency to collect any money unlawfully paid" and give the agency time to pay it.
That opportunity passed when OTA's board approved the contracts on Jan. 3, Ward stated in his petition to the court.
"Defendants have answered by their actions that they have not taken and will not take any action to recover the funds paid to the engineering firm defendants of over $42 million and climbing," he stated.
Clark called the Qui Tam lawsuit "an abuse of the judicial system in order to improperly threaten and pressure public officials and its constituents to stop a much-needed public transportation improvement and expansion project."
Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 405-416-4420.