Cherokee council considers results of investigation into chief’s administration
Rumors have been flying on the Qualla Boundary since an investigation into contract awards and human resources actions under Principal Chief Patrick Lambert’s administration was completed last week. The report, a redacted copy of which was posted on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council Facebook page, states that the investigated actions “deviated from the Cherokee Code and other documented policies and processes.”
“It was very concerning to me,” Council Vice Chair Brandon Jones, of Snowbird, said of the report.
Lambert, meanwhile, was quick to dismiss the claims against him.
“The claims asserted in the report are tainted with half-truths that would lead one to believe that misconduct has occurred,” he wrote in an official letter posted on his public Facebook page. “This report is one-sided and is meant to paint a picture that appears to show that wrongs were committed by me … Each of the accusations are easily defendable and were made to help an enrolled tribal member.”
The findings are divided into two reports, one outlining the results of an investigation into how tribal contracts were awarded and the second reviewing personnel actions and organizational changes in the tribe’s Human Resources Department. Both reports were completed by the tribe’s Office of Internal Audit.
The contract report reviewed all contracts worth $44,000 or more and select contracts worth $15,000 to $43,999 executed between Oct. 1, 2015 — four days before Lambert was sworn in — and Sept. 30, 2016. The report found that four of 68 contracts worth more than $50,000 and two of 28 contracts worth less than $50,000 were executed incorrectly.
For instance, the report says, a March 2016 contract that allocated $18,000 for the purchase of time clocks actually resulted in a $182,000 expenditure. Similarly, a November 2015 contract that allocated $25,000 for forensic auditing was amended to $65,000 without Business Committee approval, the report says, with actual expenditures as of Sept. 30, 2016, totaling $315,407.
Lambert’s letter, meanwhile, contends that the report didn’t include any of the responses he’d shared with the OIA to explain the discrepancies.
The report lists a $383,000 solid waste disposal contract among those that didn’t have proper Business Committee approval, but according to Lambert the expenditure wasn’t a contract at all — it was a continuation of a Memorandum of Understanding that had been signed off on by several past chiefs. MOUs are not legally binding documents, Lambert wrote, and they don’t go through the same process as contracts.
Similarly, he wrote, the report lists a $62,000 contract for expanding and renovating the Tribal Executive Office among those that didn’t have documented Business Committee approval.
The contract was amended to $628,000, the report reads, but according to Lambert the contract was part of a larger renovation contract that six of eight Business Committee members signed off on.
The Human Resources investigation also alleged wrongdoing, stating that the department had deviated from the code and from policies and procedures in nine different areas.
In many cases, the justification for these findings is difficult to determine by reading the publicly available copy of the investigation. Entire sentences — in many cases, the sentences that presumably detail how a policy was violated — are redacted, rather than just the particular names or numbers that would violate privacy if published. This is true for five of the nine sections.
However, four sections did include unredacted — though brief — justification for the findings.
• According to the report, 11 of 35 “hires, promotions and transfers for manager and above positions, excluding political appointments” were not advertised before the hiring decision was made. The report references Chapter 96 of the Cherokee Code, which requires such positions to be advertised before being filled.
• The tribe’s Executive Committee, composed of the Principal Chief and the Vice Chief, is tasked with carrying out tribal laws and overseeing day-to-day operations. According to the report, Lambert “solely executed personnel actions requiring Executive Committee approval without knowledge or input of the Vice Chief.”
• The report alleges that Lambert made “significant changes” to the tribe’s organizational structure without approval from Tribal Council. Cherokee code states that it’s within the chief’s authority to create an organizational chart but that the chart is subject to Tribal Council approval.
• According to the report, some tribal employees — the number is redacted — did not receive payouts of seniority bonuses, merit awards and cost of living adjustments in a timely manner. The employees in question worked for the tribe during the time periods for which the money was being paid out but were not employed at the time they were issued.
Lambert maintains that there is justification for every item listed in the report. For instance, the report claims that Human Resources violated tribal policies by appointing an interim manager while a manager was already in place.
“The program manager was going to be out for a period of time on the ‘Remember the Removal Bike Ride,’” Lambert wrote. “And, on this issue, I need to add that I actually solicited Tribal Council advice on selecting an interim manager.”
Lambert also stressed the difference between an action of the Human Resources Department and an action of the Principal Chief.
“It’s no surprise to anyone that the Department of Human Resources has been the subject of much talk and controversy,” he wrote. “Countless tribal employees and enrolled members have their own stories and experiences with HR and all too often it’s not good. It’s about who you know, who your family is, or what you have — not what you know or what you can bring to the Tribe … There are big changes coming to HR and I know you can’t wait, because it is necessary to create a fair system and break away from this old cronyism system that has permeated our lands forever.”
Lambert wrote that he had provided responses to the OIA for each of the items listed in the report but did not see information from his responses in the report.
“I am prepared to share the responses (I provided to OIA on December 21, 2016) with the public to ensure that the truth is known,” Lambert wrote.
The Smoky Mountain News requested a copy of these responses but did not receive a reply to the request as of press time.
The report stems from Tribal Council’s August 2016 decision to launch an investigation into Lambert’s hiring and firing practices after Vice Chief Richie Sneed told Council that he’d been “repeatedly approached” by employees who felt their rights to due process had been violated. Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown, made a spur-of-the-moment move to order an investigation, and the motion carried narrowly with 55 percent of the vote.
Councilmembers gathered in a closed-door meeting Monday, Jan. 23, to review the findings.
“I know the gossip mill is really flying right now, but so far Council has just agreed to issue the redacted copy to the people and to the press,” Jones said.
Lambert called Council’s closed-door meeting last week a “clear violation” of tribal law. The Cherokee code authorizes Tribal Council to hold closed meetings, but only after convening in open session and declaring the reason for going into closed session. There is a finite list of acceptable reasons to go into closed session.
Last week’s closed meeting, which all 12 councilmembers attended, did not begin with an open session as required by tribal law. However, said some councilmembers, that doesn’t mean a law was broken.
According to an email from Smith, the meeting “was not an official session of council.”
It’s not unusual for councilmembers to discuss government business outside of official session, agreed Jones.
“We meet all over the place all the time and we don’t come into session,” he said.
State and federal open meetings laws typically include provisions stating that a quorum of members of any government board can’t gather outside an official meeting and discuss government business. However, tribal code contains no such provision. It does not define what is and is not a meeting.
When Tribal Council met yesterday (Jan. 31) for its annual Budget Council meeting, Lambert addressed the investigation issue head-on. He implied that the investigation had been retaliation for measures he’d taken to “get to the bottom of crimes having been committed.”
In April 2016, Lambert delivered preliminary findings from a forensic audit of spending practices during the 12-year administration of former Principal Chief Michell Hicks, citing numbers that implied large expenditures to personally benefit government employees. He turned the results over to the FBI.
The FBI is currently investigating possible wrongdoing at the Qualla Housing Authority, according to an Oct. 4 letter the U.S. Department of Justice delivered to Program Director Charlene Owle. Six Tribal Council members sit on the Qualla Housing Board, and three of the six have held that position since 2009.
“Anything less than what we’ve been doing, looking into the wrongdoings to get to the bottom of crimes having been committed would be a disservice to the people,” Lambert said. “Trying to retaliate against someone taking those actions is just wrong. I won’t stop.”