New Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond hasn’t wasted any time in his first month in office.
Drummond, an attorney and banker from Tulsa, has taken over from local district attorneys several pending investigations of state spending. Among them are probes into the Tourism department and its contract with barbecue restaurant Swadley’s; former Epic Charter Schools officials; and an early pandemic relief program for educational spending. He’s slowed the pace of scheduled death penalty executions and filed or joined several state lawsuits against the federal government.
On Thursday, Drummond’s office said it would take over the prosecution of an attorney charged in October in Garvin County with 13 felony counts alleging illegal marijuana business practices. The attorney, Matt Stacy, was Gov. Kevin Stitt’s hospital surge advisor in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. Stacy has denied wrongdoing.
Drummond said stepping up enforcement against illegal marijuana grow operations is among his top priorities. He also wants to help find common ground with Oklahoma tribes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt sovereignty decision on criminal prosecutions on tribal land.
As attorney general and the state’s top law enforcement officer, Drummond said he essentially runs a law firm of 220 attorneys and investigators.
“In the past, I don’t know that past administrations have actually utilized the breadth and scope of the AG’s office,” Drummond said. “I am a student of the law, and I have researched carefully for this position. I do think my skills are aligned with what the needs of the state are.”
Drummond, 59, first ran for attorney general in 2018. He narrowly lost the GOP primary runoff to incumbent Mike Hunter. Drummond ran again last year, defeating John O’Connor in the Republican primary. He then beat Libertarian Lynda Steele in November by 48 percentage points. No Democrat filed for office.
Oklahoma Watch recently sat down with Drummond at the attorney general’s offices in Oklahoma City. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Oklahoma utility customers are paying for decades for fuel costs over just a few days during the winter storm in February 2021. Given that the attorney general has a duty to represent ratepayers in utility cases at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, what’s your philosophy on the attorney general’s role there?
I do not pretend to be an expert in all matters of law. I’ve dived deep in the area of utilities and regulation in the Corporation Commission so that I can have some competency in that scope. I’m not going to claim competency yet, but I’m going to claim a lot of hours spent understanding the role of the AG.
I believe clearly the attorney general’s office is the protector of the ratepayer. That doesn’t mean we are the antagonist of the utilities, because frankly when I walk in a room and turn on a light switch, I would prefer the light to come on. But at the same time, there needs to be a healthy tension so that the utility companies are paid fairly but not egregiously where there’s an undue burden to the ratepayer.
Did you see anything from the utility ratepayer-backed bond process (to pay for the storm costs) that stuck out to you?
With 20-20 hindsight, it was devastating to the state that we fought about it and didn’t immediately securitize when the (interest) rate structure was low. So now we’re going to pay $2 billion in interest. Had we not fought among ourselves and acted like rational business people, that interest rate would probably be one-half (of that amount).
At the end of the day, (Storm) Uri happened. Prices went up to $1,200 (per unit) from $1.90. It was a crazy time. My predecessor (John O’Connor) wanted to go sue all the oil and gas companies. I’m an economist by training, and previously, I’ve sold commodities in cattle and oil and gas. So I understand how the market is structured. I don’t think it’s the role of the attorney general to dictate to the utilities on how they consume or purchase their fuel.
I think the market forces, the unseen hand of Adam Smith, came into play and prices went through the roof. Our oil and gas companies could have said, “No. We choose not to sell. No lights. No gas. Sorry.” So I don’t blame the industry for selling at the market value. I’m an economist. It’s a free market; that’s what it dictated. I think the utilities probably walked away going, “We didn’t look so smart, and maybe we should blend forward contracting (for fuel purchases) with spot marketing.”
Do you have new people at your office’s Utility Division?
Those that were affiliated with this area of law are no longer in that area of law. I brought in new subject matter experts so we have a fresh start to do it right.
What are you going to do differently on illegal marijuana enforcement?
I think (Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority) has morphed into more of an administrative office and less of an enforcement office. (Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) is focused on the trafficking of fentanyl and opioids that are coincidentally aligned with the organized criminal element in our illegal (marijuana) grows. My office has a bunch of attorneys and a bunch of agents, so we’re going to use that skill set to do the forensic research and analysis to find these bad guys. We’re going to augment OBN. We’ll stay in our lane, but we’ll be adjacent to them and make a big difference.
Our three largest legal grow operations in the state of Oklahoma provide all the marijuana needs for legal customers. We are a gross exporter of marijuana. Nobody’s got their eye on that ball. OBN is cracking down on the illegal grows. OMMA is trying to make sure that legal people have licenses. Somebody needs to stop the gross export of marijuana.
Is that marijuana being illegally diverted to border states?
I think it’s much more sophisticated. I think it’s going in trucks to New York and other states. They can take our legally grown marijuana and sell it for a hundred times the price that can sell in Oklahoma into California. It’s a remarkable profit center. So my agency will focus on the civil asset forfeiture and the environmental abatement of the grows. I’m seeking legislation that will require an (environmental) bond to basically put Humpty Dumpty back together again after we shut down an illegal grow. On civil forfeiture, we will take their pickups and their hydroponics and their guns and their real estate.
How are you approaching the McGirt decision and federal-state power conflicts?
Our solicitor general’s office defends Oklahoma from federal overreach and prosecutes on behalf of Oklahoma to establish a clear separation of federal and state powers under the 10th Amendment.
We’re expending considerable efforts not in attacking Native American tribes, but in working on a resolution that makes McGirt a workable solution and not an impediment. We’re not enriching outside attorneys at a $1,000 an hour (on contract.) We’re terminating all those relationships, and we’re going to utilize Oklahomans to resolve an Oklahoma issue with Native American tribes who are also Oklahomans.
Your office has taken over several high-profile prosecutions regarding spending at the Tourism Department and federal relief funds for education through the governor’s office. But you also apologized to a former Stitt cabinet secretary, David Ostrowe, for being investigated by Mike Hunter’s office when he was attorney general. What is the proper role of the multicounty grand jury?
In my 28-year practice of the law, I’ve become intimately familiar with conflict of interest. We need to respect conflicts of interest, and we need to wall out people who have certain agenda items or issues. As the AG, I need to fully disclose any personal interest in any case. I think all of those things were compromised: I think the men and women in my office who prosecuted Ostrowe and the multicounty grand jury were given only half a deck of cards. And I think if they had been given the whole deck of cards, they would’ve probably refused to proceed.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health. Contact him at (571) 319-3289 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmonies.