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Witch hunt in tribal government? Investigations elicit charges of backroom meetings and illegally obtained records

Witch hunt in tribal government? Investigations elicit charges of backroom meetings and illegally obtained records

Tempers flared in Cherokee Tribal Council this month as some councilmembers alleged that a subset of their colleagues had gone rogue, holding backroom meetings in which they decided to subpoena tribal departments for sensitive information as part of investigations launched without the knowledge of the full council.

“I’m still a Tribal Council member this morning, and when I looked in the mirror I’m still part of this body,” said Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, during the Nov. 3 meeting. “Some of us did not know that subpoenas went out … Why? Without council’s approval, why did you do that?”

She directed her questions to Council Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown, who was among those who had authorized the subpoenas. 

Taylor replied that he had a document right in front of him showing that a vote had been taken to launch an investigation, to which Saunooke retorted that the July vote had pertained to the Human Resources Department only — not to the other departments, such as education and emergency services, that were apparently being subpoenaed as well. 

The human resources investigation goes back to July, when Tribal Council decided in a divided vote to begin investigating the hiring and firing practices of Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, who last month marked his one-year anniversary in office. The vote also included an order to freeze hiring and firing until the investigation could be completed. 

Some councilmembers charged that Lambert had been wrongfully firing tribal workers for personal reasons and hiring new positions without permission. Lambert, meanwhile, said that he’d replaced only people holding politically appointed positions, who should have expected to lose their jobs with the change in administration. Firing among rank-and-file tribal employees, however, could have happened at the discretion of supervisors following Lambert’s direction to put an end to the poor work ethic that he said was pervasive during the previous administration. 

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Further, Lambert said, council did not have the right to interfere with his management of day-to-day government operations. So, on Oct. 13 he issued an executive order lifting the hiring and firing freeze.


Some excluded from investigation decisions

The investigations under discussion at Tribal Council this month did not pertain to Human Resources. The conversation revealed that council had also begun investigating the education and emergency services departments, apparently without the consent or knowledge of all councilmembers. 

In addition, educational files belonging to Lambert’s son and to the daughter of Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove, were apparently obtained in conjunction with the new investigations. Educational records are protected by federal law and cannot be obtained without the permission of either the individual or of that individual’s parent or guardian, depending on whether the person is a minor. 

“That’s a violation of federal law, and I’m exploring my options right now as to who’s been involved with that to see who needs to be charged with violating the Federal Privacy Act,” Lambert told Council. 

It’s unclear exactly how a group of councilmembers came to meet or why they decided to begin investigating additional departments. It’s also unclear by what mechanism the educational records were obtained. 

Taylor said in council that he had a letter signed by eight of the 12 councilmembers authorizing the additional investigations. 

“That’s not the whole body,” Saunooke pointed out. 

“Well, it’s over a majority and over two-thirds,” Taylor said. 

“I was never approached,” Saunooke replied. “When did you decide to do that?”

Taylor never answered the question directly, though he said that the vote took place “in here” — presumably, in the council chambers — and said that the additional investigations were a result of employees who came forward.

“They came to us,” he said. “We didn’t go to them.”

Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, was among those who were not included in the decision to investigate additional departments. She took issue with Taylor calling the document requests “subpoenas” at all. 

“Those are not subpoenas because there is a process that we have used historically as a council to issue subpoenas,” she said. 

During the previous administration, McCoy said, she’d often found herself in a position in which she desired to see certain documents. But she was always told that, as an individual councilmember not representing the wishes of the body as a whole, that she could not obtain them with the force of subpoena power. Why is this situation any different from that, she asked?

Taylor, meanwhile, maintained that council has the right to issue subpoenas and that, because the weighted votes of the members who did sign onto the additional investigations add up to more than two-thirds of council — meaning the vote would be veto-proof — it’s not that relevant whether or not all councilmembers were included in the discussion. 

When asked how the additional investigations were decided upon and whether all councilmembers were invited to the meetings during which they were discussed, Taylor and Tribal Council Attorney Carolyn West said only that the investigation is ongoing and they could not comment.


Protest over educational records

Aside from the question of whether procedure was broken when some councilmembers decided to begin additional investigations without notifying their colleagues, obtaining his son’s educational records is objectively illegal, Lambert said. His son’s records grant only one other person access to those records — his mother. And his son’s mother did not request any records, Lambert said. 

“That’s a political attack in my book,” Lambert told council. “There’s no reason why my son’s educational file should be given out to this Tribal Council.”

Taylor, however, denied responsibility for obtaining the records, though admitting that the records were now on file as part of the investigation. 

“This body never requested any information,” Taylor replied to Lambert. “We never told no employee to go get something and take it. That was not part of the subpoena. We never asked anybody to take any information, any file or anything.”

“The employees came forward and said they had information they wanted to give this body,” Taylor said later in the exchange. “I didn’t bring it up.”

“Who’s got that information now?” Lambert responded. 

“Internal audit,” said Taylor, adding that the office has a confidentiality policy they must adhere to. 

Lambert, who is an attorney, apparently was not comforted by the confidentiality policy, vowing to “explore my options” to see “who needs to be charged with violating the Federal Privacy Act.”

“I think it’s a witch hunt. I still hold to that,” he said. “I said to council if you have any questions of me, ask those questions. I think this is a witch hunt that you’re on. It’s ridiculous, and you see what it’s doing.”

French then chimed in to express anger that his daughter’s file had been one of those educational records handed to council. He’s advised his daughter to look at hiring a lawyer, he said. It’s unfair, he said, that she is trying to give back to her community by going back to school for a master’s degree and winds up being “jumped on and her file taken away and people walk by and don’t even speak to her.”

“You talk about the hospital — ‘We don’t got no doctors, we ain’t got no nurses.’ Well, they don’t want to come back if this is how we’re going to treat them,” French said. 

Some aspect of the investigation into the executive branch has sparked conflict in Tribal Council nearly every month since it was first launched in July, following a move from the floor with no attached documentation. Maybe it’s finally time to call the whole thing off, McCoy said. 

“What exactly are we investigating? No one knows,” she said. “But apparently we have some people here at the table who take issue with what’s going on in the executive office and it’s turmoil and I’m not included in that. That’s why I sit here so frustrated because I get to hear outside something that happened in here.”

She followed her comments with a move to “stop whatever nonsense is going on out there.” 

That is, to end the investigation. 

Taylor responded that council proper is not doing the investigation. Internal Audit is handling the investigation, he said — spurred by the letter signed by eight councilmembers. 

“It was just asking for internal audit to do what’s required,” he said of the letter. “We’re doing everything legally, like we’re supposed to.”

French provided a second to McCoy’s move, but the two Big Cove representatives were the only two votes in favor of ending the investigation. 

The discussion is the latest in a yearlong saga featuring a divided Tribal Council and a legislative branch consistently at loggerheads with the executive branch. Over the past year, they’ve sparred over everything from Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise board appointments to per capita loans to budgeting. 

Some councilmembers have expressed frustration with the protracted bickering, desiring an improved working relationship that would allow for better progress on behalf of the tribe. 

“You need to remember you’re already elected,” French told his fellow councilmembers during an Oct. 18 council meeting. “We’ve already been in here one year — what can we go back and say we really accomplished in one year? We’ve got one more year to do something. Whether we get re-elected or not we still have a job to do in this next year, because that’s what we was elected to do.”

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