Governmental crisis in Cherokee: Impeachment hearing scheduled for Chief Lambert

From the moment April’s Tribal Council session began — 8:30 a.m. sharp on the sixth — the Cherokee Council House was packed. Tribal members filled the seats and stood against the walls leading out to the lobby, where chairs in front of a TV broadcasting the meeting inside quickly reached capacity. Faces bearing expressions of sadness, or anticipation, or grim resignation, they waited for the action to start. 

Before the day concluded, a three-act drama would unfold, carried along by a pair of surprise resolutions that Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown, would introduce from the floor apart from the public agenda published beforehand. 

The Tribal Council would vote, 9-3, to schedule an April 20 impeachment hearing against Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, and then — once more, 9-3 — to suspend the chief until the hearing was complete. Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, would present legislation she’d placed on the agenda seeking to commence impeachment against Taylor and Vice Chief Richie Sneed. And, finally, a decision would arrive from the Cherokee Tribal Court preventing council from implementing its decision to suspend Lambert. 

Tears would be shed, accusations would be made, and points of law would be hotly debated. And, like any true drama, it would all unfold one line of dialogue at a time. 


Act One: Articles of Impeachment

When, during the Feb. 2 meeting, the majority of Tribal Council announced its intention to impeach Lambert, approving articles of impeachment outlining the exact reasons for the action was the logical next step. No articles were introduced in March, and, likewise, no such vote appeared on the April agenda. 

But copies of draft articles intended for surprise introduction during the April meeting somehow made their way into Lambert’s hands ahead of time. He posted the documents on Facebook, and by the time the meeting came around the impending vote was common knowledge. It prompted Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, to ask that all the elected leaders join hands in prayer before the agenda progressed and spurred Lambert to remind councilmembers that this season surrounding Easter is “one of the most sacred months of the year.”

“It’s something larger than any of us,” he said, “and I firmly believe in honest and accountable leadership. I think that’s all they (tribal members) ask.”

SEE ALSO: Grounds for impeachment

However, when the voting portion of the agenda commenced, Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown, said the lines that the people gathered in the Council House had come to hear. 

“Everybody has heard about the impeachment process, and they want it to come to an end. They want it resolved,” Taylor said. 

He then presented the articles of impeachment and asked for a move that they be read and voted on. Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown, provided that move with a second by Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird. 

“This is the first time council is going to be seeing this,” McCoy protested. “We have a process in place that we go through to put things on the agenda. What I have seen continually happen in here in the past five or six months is people pick and choose what’s going to be on the agenda.”

According to Cherokee code, “each Council member shall be provided with a written agenda and copies of proposed legislation and all referenced and related documents … five business days before the Thursday session of Tribal Council convenes.” However, it wasn’t until after council had voted 9-3 to hear the articles of impeachment that copies were passed around. 

The articles outlined seven grounds on which to impeach Lambert, including allegations that his hotel had illegally entered into a contract with the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, that he had made expenditures as principal chief before officially taking office and that he had executed contracts without securing proper approval for the expenditures. On his Facebook page, Lambert responded to each of the charges individually (see box on page 7).

The document had barely been read into the record before McCoy was ready to respond. The items contained in the articles of impeachment mostly dealt with policies and procedures that Lambert had allegedly violated, she said, but Tribal Council does far worse on a regular basis. 

“This council has broke the law,” she said. “You broke the law. Law. Not just policy, not just process, not just procedure. Law.”

Everyone at the table who’s taking home $80,000 per year fits in that category, she said — Tribal Council’s salary went up by $10,000 in 2014 in an action that many tribal members and leaders of the new administration consider to be illegal. The issue went to court, but the tribal members bringing the suit were dismissed due to lack of standing. 

If Tribal Council were really intent on getting to the bottom of Lambert’s alleged actions, McCoy said, they would have handled the last few months quite a bit differently. 

“I have asked that we give Mr. Lambert a day to come in and talk to us. I’ve asked for Human Resources, I’ve asked for the Office of Internal Audit, I’ve asked for Finance, and y’uns won’t do it,” she said. “So when you sit here and you throw law back in our faces about violating the oath of office, I think some of y’all need to take a long, hard look at yourself.”

“I’d just like to say for the record you accuse us of breaking the law — you have as well,” Taylor retorted. “You broke your oath of office because during this whole process you have, especially by filing a lawsuit yesterday, impeded this impeachment process. You broke the law.”

McCoy had filed the lawsuit in question that week, arguing that Tribal Council violated her rights when it failed to read or hear comment on a protest she filed in March against the decision to impeach. It is unclear what statute Taylor’s allegation against McCoy references. 

Councilmember Anita Lossiah, of Yellowhill, followed up with a statement of her position on the issue. She said that tribal law makes it clear that public funds can’t be spent without proper approval and that council must protect the tribe’s human resources. 

“I am in public support of this legislation,” she said, suggesting an April 20 date for the impeachment hearing. 

Some members of the audience applauded in response, and council swiftly voted — 9-3, with only McCoy, Saunooke, and Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove, opposing — to pass the articles of impeachment and approve the April 20 hearing date.

For a full hour after the vote, tribal members and councilmembers took turns at the mic to deliver their opinions on the decision. Of the five tribal members who spoke, only one was in support of impeachment. That was Timmy Ray Smith, a former tribal employee. 

One of the issues addressed in the articles of impeachment is the allegation that Lambert hired an interim manager for a position when a manager was already in place. Timmy Ray Smith said that he was the interim manager in that situation. 

“Because they put me in an interim spot I guess they thought they could tell me things that I wasn’t going to tell, and there’s a lot more that I know,” Timmy Ray Smith said. “I’ll be back up here in a minute if I need to. I’m sick and tired of it.”

According to Timmy Ray Smith, Lambert sent the former manager off on the month-long Remember the Removal bike ride and quietly replaced him while he was away. He also told of a situation when Lambert’s office asked that the number one candidate for a tribal job — a veteran — be moved down to number two and the next person on the list — who happened to be Lambert’s nephew — be hired. 

However, Lambert’s chief of staff Sage Dunston said that’s not exactly what happened and they’ll look forward to presenting the real story during the impeachment hearing. 

“Those necessarily aren’t the course of events,” he said, “and we look forward to discussing those.”

The rest of the speakers, however, were in full support of Lambert and expressed their anger at the direction Tribal Council has taken. 

“How can you judge and impeach somebody when you’re doing it yourself?” said Lori Taylor, a tribal member from Big Cove who is running for a seat on council.

“My representatives don’t hardly represent us, so I don’t think it’s fair to say the tribe of Cherokee impeached unless I have a vote in it,” added Louise Reed, a tribal member from Snowbird. “A lot of people wants a voice in this, and we have been shut down.”

“It hurts me the way y’uns are carrying on,” concluded Amanda Swimmer, a 95-year-old tribal member who stood up from her wheelchair to address council. “I listen and it makes me sick.”

McCoy went so far as to question the legality of the impeachment legislation. The impeachment was passed as a resolution, she said, which is not sufficient to trump an existing ordinance in Cherokee law. And Cherokee law states that the principal chief must ratify any actions passed by the Tribal Council — nowhere does the law give this power to the vice chief. 

“In your haste we have done another injustice,” she said. 


Act Two: Suspension from Office

With the impeachment vote settled, Taylor had one more piece of surprise legislation to produce before continuing with the scheduled agenda — a resolution to suspend Lambert from office until the April 20 impeachment hearing could conclude. 

Allowing Lambert to remain in office, the legislation said, “immediately threatens due process of the impeachment procedures.” Therefore, he should be required to turn over all tribal assets and duties to Vice Chief Sneed until a decision could be reached on the impeachment issue. 

After the resolution was read, the first thing Lambert did was to ask if council could put the issue on hold for five minutes so that it could first vote on the resolution that 95-year-old Swimmer had been waiting for hours to hear. 

“Then you can go about your business of trying to get rid of me,” he said. 

Council acquiesced, handled the resolution in question, and then returned to the suspension issue. 

Smith immediately moved to pass it, with McCoy protesting that the proposed resolution was illegal.

“Mr. Chairman, you’re getting ready to violate the law again,” she said. “You don’t get to make up law … You don’t suspend an Indian chief. You cannot suspend an Indian chief. And that vice chief cannot sign a contract. I’m sorry, I don’t understand why you don’t understand that.”

“Bill, you sat there yourself when I asked you, ‘Can a resolution override an ordinance?’ and it took you a minute, but you said, ‘No,’” she added.  

“We’re not overriding an ordinance,” Taylor replied. 

“Yes, you did override that ordinance when you gave him (Sneed) permission to sign a contract,” McCoy shot back. “He does not have the authority to do that. Only the chief does, by charter.”

Taylor retorted that the law gives the “executive office” — comprised of both the chief and the vice chief — authority to carry out law, while McCoy pointed out that the act of ratifying legislation is specifically delegated to the principal chief. The argument called for a legal opinion to settle the dust, but the only attorney in the room at the moment was Lambert. The attorney general and legislative liaison were both over in tribal court, embroiled in arguments over the legality of the action council was poised to take. 

So, McCoy called Lambert to the stand. 

“I’m asking you a generic legal question,” she said. At this, the anti-Lambert faction in the audience laughed sarcastically. “Does a resolution override an ordinance?”

“Not ever since I’ve been around this tribe, it hasn’t,” Lambert replied. 

“It does not,” said McCoy. “So I think you need to go back and bring your little legislation in as an ordinance that amends that ordinance, because you keep violating them.”

At this, Wachacha spoke up in defense of council’s actions. The body has been trying to give Lambert due process, he said, but law actually gives few parameters for how an impeachment should proceed. 

“There is no process,” Wachacha said. “There is nothing in the code and nothing that says there is a process for impeachment. The only thing the charter says, which trumps everything, is that the Tribal Council has the authority to remove any elected official by a two-thirds vote.”

“No it does not,” Lambert retorted as Taylor banged his gavel. “That’s a very important point, Mr. Chairman. What he just said is absolutely wrong, because the charter says that the Tribal Council has the power to impeach by a two-thirds vote. It does not say ‘remove.’”

“This is my problem with the resolutions that keep coming in here,” Wachacha said. “The resolutions that keep coming in here, as long as he stays in office he can veto, there can be protests.”

“Because I’m an elected official,” Lambert said. 

“I know you are but —”

“That’s right. Can I suspend you?” Lambert said, raising his voice as Taylor banged his gavel. “Can I suspend you?”

“I can!” McCoy yelled. “I can!”

Taylor put an end to the discussion by calling for a vote, with Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown, seconding Smith’s move to pass the suspension resolution. As the vote was taken — with nine in favor and the same three opposed — McCoy repeated “Breaking the law, breaking the law” over and over as members of the audience yelled “Lawsuit!”

The ordinance passed, and the anti-Lambert faction of the crowd broke into applause.


Act Three: Reversal

The suspension was not destined to stick. 

Immediately after the resolution passed, Lambert filed a motion in Cherokee Tribal Court for a temporary restraining order on its enactment. Tribal Council has no legal authority to suspend a chief, Lambert’s office argued, so the resolution should not be enforced. 

Within hours, Temporary Associate Judge Sharon Barrett had made her decision. Tribal Council is prohibited from enforcing the suspension ordinance, she wrote, until the matter is settled during a full hearing scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Monday, April 17. However, the decision reads, after looking at the provision of law that Tribal Council had used to assert its authority to suspend, “nothing contained in this provision of law empowers one branch of government, the Tribal Council, to suspend from office the head of another branch of government, the Principal Chief.”

“A governmental crisis is now presented to this Court as a result of the actions taken by the Tribal Council today in attempting to suspend the Principal Chief from office,” the decision reads. “The Court does not lightly interpose the authority it holds to issue orders restraining officers of a coordinate political department from exercising their duties and responsibilities as they see fit. However, it is emphatically the duty and province of this Court to say what the law is and to apply that law in cases properly brought before this Court.”

The decision came just as Tribal Council was preparing to hear the only impeachment resolutions that had been on the agenda when the morning began — three separate actions McCoy had filed that sought to prepare articles of impeachment against Sneed and eight of the 12 councilmembers. The grounds involved what McCoy contended was the illegal process used to retain a lawyer for the impeachment process against Lambert and council’s denial of tribal members wishing to speak on protests of the impeachment during the March meeting. 

“I’m willing to drop back now and have a talk with you guys off camera, all alone, and help you decide what’s in the best interest of this Tribal Council,” McCoy said, “because if you continue to break the law today, you’re being watched…I don’t want to send you home and I don’t want to sit here and point fingers at who did or didn’t break the law anymore. I want to spend the rest of my time doing what’s best for them (tribal members).”

Council did not take McCoy up on her offer of a closed-session discussion. 

Jones described Lambert’s response to the impeachment efforts as “smoke and mirrors,” with Smith saying that he was not “going to sit here and be threatened” and then moving to kill the resolution. 

But that vote was never taken, because McCoy announced that she never wanted to put the tribe through nine more impeachment hearings anyway. 

“I think we have wore our communities out on the issue of impeachment,” she said, moving to withdraw her own legislation. “That is my point.”

Council approved that move to withdraw. But the discussion wasn’t over. 

“Well, if there’s laws broken that y’all are accusing me of, we can prove that there were laws broken by this body as well,” Lambert said, reminding council that some of its members are currently under investigation by the FBI. 

“It’s beyond the pale here,” Lambert said. “You need to get your heads out of your butts and let’s get down to business.”

The comment prompted a shouting match between Jones and Lambert, during which Jones said that he was only doing what he believed to be right by going through with the impeachment and that it was Lambert who had broken his promises by holding a hotel room contract with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort while in office. Meanwhile, Lambert contended that the contract was perfectly legal, as it was executed before he took office, and that the secretive way that council had handled the whole impeachment question spoke volumes about the validity of the claims against him. 

“Teresa (McCoy) had enough respect for this council to put this on the agenda,” Lambert said. “Why is it always a surprise attack against me? Everything y’all have tried to do against me is a surprise attack.”

The question was met with silence. Members of the audience called out, “Answer it. Why is it never on the agenda?” and “Now they don’t have nothing to say.”

“I have something to say,” Smith said. “I ain’t seen it (the articles of impeachment) till this morning.”

“That’s our point,” audience members said, with laughter rippling through the crowd. 

Observing that “with all due respect chief, we’re not making any progress here,” Jones put an end to the conversation. After eight full hours, the council session ended without even covering everything on the regular agenda — those items will be carried over to the next meeting, May 4. 

By that time, the political landscape in Cherokee could look drastically different than it does right now. The impeachment hearing will have concluded, with Lambert either coming out on top or seeing himself removed from office. Rumors of the impeachment issue being taken up in a Grand Council — a gathering in which every enrolled member has a vote on the business at hand — could come to fruition. And there’s no telling when the FBI investigation, which has been going on for six months, could conclude, possibly resulting in indictments against some of the ringleaders of the impeachment effort. 

The curtain may have closed for now, but the drama will continue.

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