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Impeachment rumors catalyze conflict in Tribal Council

Impeachment rumors catalyze conflict in Tribal Council

Tension has been high in Cherokee tribal government lately, and when rumors emerged last week that some members of Tribal Council were planning to get Principal Chief Patrick Lambert impeached, it didn’t take long for the gossip to get a public airing.

When Tribal Council’s Oct. 18 meeting opened, Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, raised her hand to kick off the reports from councilmembers that typically begin each session. 

“Mr. Chairman, are we impeaching somebody today?” McCoy asked immediately.

“No,” replied Council Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown. 

“Are we impeaching somebody next council?” countered McCoy. 

“I haven’t seen a resolution,” Taylor said. 

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“I just want council to know there are rumors out there in the community and I’ve been bombarded by questions,” McCoy replied. “The chairman said we are not impeaching somebody. We’re going to hold him to his word.”

As the 12 members of council each delivered their respective reports, McCoy’s line of questioning found company in comments from some of her colleagues. 

“I was put into office to do a job, and one thing we’re here to do is to look out for enrolled members, and if somebody is messing up it’s worthy of impeachment, but as of now I’ve seen nothing to impeach anybody on,” said Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown. “I’d like to just move forward on what needs to be done.”

Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove, echoed that sentiment — council should be spending its time working for tribal members, not squabbling over personal issues, he said. 

“We’ve already been in here one year. What can we go back and say we really accomplished in one year?” he asked. “We’ve got one more year to do something. Whether we get reelected or not we still have a job to do in this next year because that’s what we was elected to do.”

Those councilmembers who addressed the issue seemed to agree they’d started hearing rumors the previous day, on Monday, Oct. 17. It’s unclear where the impeachment conversation originated, but a post to the Facebook page Cherokee Rants and Raves at 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16, matches the timeline. The post, which is written anonymously, alleged that some members of council planned to initiate impeachment at Tuesday’s meeting as retaliation for recent events that they saw as threatening their power. The post gained significant traction, garnering 65 shares and reposts to other Cherokee community Facebook pages. 


Ongoing tension 

There has certainly been some shaking up in tribal government recently, with the executive and legislative branches sparring over various issues since the current crop of leaders took office in October 2015. 

In July, Tribal Council decided in a narrow vote — taken after Councilmember Travis Smith introduced a verbal resolution on the floor in response to concerns that Vice Chief Richie Sneed had brought up that morning — to launch an investigation into Lambert’s hiring and firing practices. The vote also ordered Lambert to cease all hiring and firing until the investigation could be completed. Some members felt Lambert had been abusing his power by firing people for personal reasons and hiring new positions without proper approval. 

Lambert responded that, aside from his having done nothing wrong, Council was outside its scope of power to interfere with his personnel decisions. Managing the day-to-day of tribal government is the domain of the executive branch, and so Lambert asked for a written version of the verbal resolution so he could veto it. Council refused, responding that launching investigations is within the body’s power and not subject to veto. Then, on Oct. 13, Lambert issued an executive order announcing that he would resume hiring and firing as usual. 

“The action was outside the scope of legislative branch authority,” the order says of council’s vote. “By Executive Order I am reasserting my authority over the day-to-day operations and administration of this Tribe and tribal programs. These duties and separation of power between the two branches of Government are clearly spelled out in our Code and in the Cherokee Charter and Governing Document.”

Besides, Lambert maintained, he has done only what was within the power of his office to do. While he has replaced Hicks’ hires with his own appointments, those were all appointed positions in which it’s understood that the person holding the job is a political appointee serving at the pleasure of the principal chief. There have been no multitudes of wrongfully fired or transferred rank-and-file employees, he said, though some people who were merely coasting under the Hicks administration — not showing up to work, taking two-hour lunch breaks, and generally showing lackluster work ethic — may have found themselves fired. 

In Lambert’s eyes, the 12-year Hicks administration served to cover a substantial amount of corruption and mismanagement. 

“If there’s been crimes committed, I’m not one to help cover them up, keep them hidden,” he told Council at the Oct. 18 meeting. 

Back in April, Lambert issued a preliminary report on a forensic audit into tribal spending over the past 12 years, which revealed many red flags, including thousands of dollars and cash advances to “parties unknown,” and thousands more spent at clothing stores such as Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret and Joseph A. Bank, and for limousine rentals, Dollywood tickets and trips to golf courses in Georgia and Puerto Rico. 

He turned the information over the FBI, and on Oct. 1 officials at the Qualla Housing Authority were informed that they were under federal investigation for “possible criminal conduct related to certain loans and loan applications, among other matters,” according to a letter that the U.S. Department of Justice sent to the program’s director, Charlene Owle. 

The Qualla Housing Authority falls outside of the oversight of the executive branch and is overseen by a board whose membership includes six members of Tribal Council — Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown; Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill; Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird; Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown; Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove; and Councilmember Marie Junaluska, of Painttown. Taylor, Ensley and Wachacha have been on the board since 2009; Junaluska and French took their seats more recently, in 2015. 

Some tribal members — including the author of the Rants and Raves post — believe that backroom impeachment discussions have resulted from the fear some tribal leaders have about the investigation’s outcome.  

“The old political ruling class are going to do whatever they need to make sure they don’t go to jail,” the post reads. 


Response from the chief 

While the word “impeachment” was used frequently during the Oct. 18 meeting, it was always uttered by somebody opposed to the idea. Nobody spoke up in favor it. And while the rumor appeared to be widespread — none of the councilmembers pronounced it to be false — nobody claimed to know where it had started or whether there was any truth to it. 

However, it’s no secret that a divide exists between Lambert’s administration and a bloc of councilmembers that has consistently opposed his actions. 

Lambert addressed the issue head-on. 

“Those are dangerous rumors to start,” he said. “It’s not about because it upsets me or anything like that, because it really didn’t. I know what I’ve done. I know there’s no justification for anything like that. The point that does bother me is the impact this has on the tribe as a whole, the impact this has on tribal government.”

Instead of dealing with real issues, making real progress, he said, tribal government is stuck in a rut full of infighting. Lambert placed the blame for that reality fully at the feet of the councilmembers who have opposed him — he’s been more than willing to communicate and talk about differences, he said, but they have not taken him up on that willingness. 

“I’ve said a dozen times, if you want to know something all you have to do is ask me,” he said.


A perspective from history

Lambert wasn’t the only one to express frustration with tribal government’s lack of forward motion that day. Crowe, French and Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, made comments to that effect as well, and tribal member Mary Wachacha took the podium to deliver 11 minutes’ worth of commentary on just what she thinks about the state of the current tribal council. 

“This is supposed to be government. You are here to support the legislative branch,” she said. “Instead, Tribal Council is trying to micromanage the tribe. You’re sticking your noses where you don’t have any right to stick them.”

Wachacha, whose career included 40 years of working for three different federal agencies, told council that she’d seen a fair number of U.S. presidents come and go during her years with the government, and it was expected that each new administration would bring with it a change of direction and change of leadership. 

“Sometimes we’d get a president and they’d say, ‘We’re going to go to the right,’ and we’d start marching and working that way, and then somebody new would be elected and their appointees would come in and say, ‘Now we’re going to the left,’” she said. “You have to follow the administration.”

The same goes for tribal government, Wachacha said. It used to be that the only political appointee that a new chief would make was the chief’s advisor position, but when Joyce Dugan was elected principal chief in 1995, she asked all top-level managers to resign from their positions, introducing a wider array of politically appointed professional staff into the tribal workforce, Wachacha told council. Since then, chiefs have hired their own top-level staff. Early in the administration of former Principal Chief Michell Hicks, Wachacha said, council approved a resolution Hicks submitted asking for sole hiring and firing authority. 

“Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, as far as I can see, is only doing what you gave the former principal chief and the tribal executive branch the right and power to do, so why should Principal Chief Patrick Lambert be held to a higher standard?” Wachacha asked. 

Wachacha recounted instances of seeing tribal employees ordering a McDonald’s breakfast at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday or lingering over a two-hour lunch. It’s no surprise, she said, that cleaning up the tribal government would include some changes to personnel. 

“Working for the tribe should be a privilege and not a guarantee of a job,” she said. “Supervisors should not ignore those employees who are not doing their jobs, who are not arriving on time and are leaving before quitting time.”

Lambert won the election by more than 70 percent, Wachacha pointed, out, indicating that tribal members wanted the status quo shaken up. 

“I’m glad to hear that the Principal Chief lifted the freeze on the hiring and firing because we have a lot of people out there who need work and are looking for jobs,” Wachacha said. 

In a follow-up interview, McCoy agreed with that statement. 

“I’m glad they’re going to get to go to work now,” she said of the newly hired employees. “And certain members of Tribal Council because of the move and the amendment (to investigate and freeze hiring and firing) had held that process up. I just wish our chief had done it sooner.”

Though basic human resources functions have resumed, council’s investigation into Lambert’s hiring and firing practices is still active. Taylor told council that the investigation is being handled by the tribe’s Office of Internal Audit. 

Smith, who had initiated the original move to investigate, maintains that the outcome will be revealing. 

“We’re not the ones to boast and brag or use scare tactics to get what we need,” he told The Smoky Mountain News. “The facts will be told once all is complete.”

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