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Oklahoma GOP candidate sues tribal leader, alleging wrongful termination for opposing mask mandate

The Hill logo The Hill 8/13/2020 Morgan Gstalter
Oklahoma GOP candidate sues tribal leader, alleging wrongful termination for opposing mask mandate © Getty Oklahoma GOP candidate sues tribal leader, alleging wrongful termination for opposing mask mandate

A Republican running for the state Senate in Oklahoma filed a wrongful termination lawsuit this week, alleging he was fired from his job with a Native American tribe for being a vocal opponent of a local mask mandate.

Shane Jett is suing Citizen Potawatomi Nation Chairman John "Rocky" Barrett, accusing the tribal leader of firing him over his political beliefs amid the coronavirus pandemic, The Oklahoman reported on Thursday.

"After numerous attempts to reason with Chairman Barrett and other elected CPN officials, it became clear a lawsuit was the only way to protect me and my family," Jett said in a news release. "The Chairman is a well-known partisan Democrat and attacked me for speaking out."

Jett alleges in the lawsuit that Barrett referenced the July 20 city council meeting when he initially asked him to resign.

During the public comment period of the meeting, Jett said he wanted to speak on behalf of those who would like to have the freedom to choose whether to follow the recommendations of scientists and health care professionals to wear a mask, according to The Shawnee News-Star.

"I'd like to encourage the elected officials to decide it on the side of common sense and allow your citizens who had the good sense to elect you to also make the decisions about what's best for their health," Jett said during the meeting. "I think you'll find a lot of backlash, a lot of frustrations."

He said the commission should only provide information and recommendations and then allow residents to decide for themselves.

"When we overstep and mandate I think that we have repercussions that fall inside of constitutional freedom," he said. "I'm here to urge caution. Let us make our decisions on what's best for our families."

Health experts across the world, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have called on Americans to wear face coverings in pubic to stem the spread of COVID-19, which has infected 46,103 people in Oklahoma as of Thursday.

Ultimately, the Shawnee City Commission voted unanimously to implement a mask mandate through Sept. 30.

Jett said he refused to resign and told Barrett to take the issue to the board of directors that oversees the Community Development Corporation.

"Chairman Barrett behaved as a bully unbecoming to his position as Chairman of the Potawatomi Nation," Jett said in a statement obtained by The Oklahoman. "I will not be intimidated into silence in the face of petty tyranny."

Jett, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, had been hired to lead the Community Development Corporation in 2011.

His lawsuit is seeking to have him reinstated at his job "without further harassment" from Barrett and receive back pay, according to the outlet.

Barrett denied the allegations in a statement to The Oklahoman and insisted that Jett's termination was not politically motivated.

"I knew that Shane was an ultra-conservative Republican when I hired him 10 years ago," Barrett said,=. "In addition, he worked here before, during and after his run for the 5th Congressional District in 2014 as a Republican. Why would I wait more than seven years to fire him over his politics? Obviously, the reason was something else altogether."

Barrett did not give reason for Jett's termination but pointed to The Citizen Potawatomi Nation employing 2,400 people of all political persuasions.

The chairman noted that he has been leading the Citizen Potawatomi Nation for 35 years and manages the $350 million operating budget.

"Mr. Jett can engage in petty name calling all he wants, but the proof is in the numbers," Barrett told the outlet. "We are a success and over 35,000 Tribal citizens continue to elect me. This would not be true if I was all of the nasty things young Mr. Jett is calling me."

Jett is a former GOP legislator in the Oklahoma House who resigned in 2010 to launch an unsuccessful run for the 5th Congressional District seat.

He is currently running against state Sen. Ron Sharp (R) for the Senate District 17 seat, and public campaign finance reports obtained by the outlet show that The Citizen Potawatomi Nation has donated $1,000 to Sharp.

The two Republicans will face off in the Aug. 25 runoff primary.

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