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Cherokee council votes to impeach Chief Lambert

Cherokee council votes to impeach Chief Lambert

To the boos of an outspoken audience, the Cherokee Tribal Council voted 9-3 Feb. 2 to begin impeachment proceedings against Principal Chief Patrick Lambert.

Rumors of coming attempts to impeach Lambert have been circulating on the Qualla Boundary for months now, but the issue came to a head with the Jan. 18 completion of an investigation into contracts and human resources dealings over the course of Lambert’s administration. Tribal Council had ordered the investigation in August following a spur-of-the-moment move from Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown. The tribe’s Office of Internal Audit conducted the investigation. 

Some members of council felt that the investigation’s findings were worrying enough to warrant impeachment, while others believed the issue to be retaliation for the audits and investigations that Lambert himself had been conducting since taking office. One of those audits led to what is now an active FBI investigation into dealings at the Qualla Housing Authority (see story on page 4), on whose board six current councilmembers sit. 

According to Councilmember Brandon Jones, of Snowbird — who does not sit on the Qualla Housing board — the interest in impeachment was borne of calls he’d been getting from constituents who said they were afraid to go to work and felt threatened by the new administration. 

“I’ve got employees still calling, saying they’re terrified to come to work, they’ve been targeted in social media, they’ve been locked in their offices for doing their jobs and complying with the investigation,” Jones told Council Thursday morning (Feb. 2) as he explained his move to bring articles of impeachment against Lambert later that afternoon. 

Lambert disputed the accusation. 

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“I have never done that,” he told Jones. “If they are fearful it’s only because they are perhaps doing wrong on their own or scared they’ll eventually get caught at that. I’ve only asked people to do their job … I haven’t threatened anybody with their job.”

“That’s a fair statement chief,” Jones replied. “What I want to say is they feel threatened. I never said that you went and threatened these people.”

“I can’t control people’s feelings,” Lambert said. 


An attempt to turn the tables

In his public response to the OIA audit, Lambert said that each of the supposed violations found were “easily defensible” but that OIA had not included his responses to those accusations in its report. 

If anybody should be impeached, Lambert said, it’s the members of Tribal Council who voted themselves $10,000 pay raises in October 2014. 

The tribe’s Charter and Governing Document states that any pay raises council votes for itself can’t take place until after the next election is over and the new council is seated, but the 2014 raises went into effect right away and also included backpay for the years when councilmembers supposedly should have already been receiving the higher pay. Currently, all councilmembers make more than $80,000 per year. A coalition of tribal members calling itself the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for Justice and Accountability contested the matter in tribal court, but the case was dismissed last summer due to lack of standing. 

“If we’re going to go down this road, then by the end of today as a piece of sister legislation to that I would ask that we also entertain a motion to impeach each of the councilmembers from the last council session that voted themselves a pay raise in clear violation of the law,” Lambert said. “If we’re going to go down this road, I think we need to be fair across the board. This is just a political attack toward me.”

Current members of Tribal Council who held office at the time of the pay raises and voted in favor of those pay raises include Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown; Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird; Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown; Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown; and Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill. Though he initially voted for the raises, Rose later reversed his position and entered a formal protest of the decision. 

Lambert’s suggestion didn’t gain any traction. Instead, council voted overwhelmingly to have an impeachment resolution drafted for consideration later that day. The only members who voted against drafting the resolution were Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove; Councilmember Richard French, of Big Cove; and Saunooke. The same three members consistently voted against the other nine during all impeachment-related matters that day. 


Showdown in the council house 

By the time a resolution had been drafted and council had worked its way to the end of its regular agenda, the council house was packed to the gills with tribal members waiting to witness the showdown. Every seat was full, with a load of fold-up chairs brought in for additional seating. The lobby and hallway from the door to the chambers became a standing-room-only space. 

It was a little after 3 p.m. when the resolution was read, outlining council’s authority to impeach, the findings of the OIA report, and the intention to draft articles of impeachment. Though they were later struck, the resolution also included provisions suspending Lambert from office until the impeachment proceedings were over and requiring him to pay for his own lawyer. 

As the reading concluded, the audience — which appeared to be largely composed of Lambert supporters — let out a resounding “booooo,” telling Council what they thought of the impeachment concept. Taylor responded by directing Officer Fred Penick to clear the chambers, which caused the audience to yell, “No! We’re not leaving!” Lambert expressed his support for letting the people stay, setting off a brief power struggle between him and Taylor. 

“Fred, clear the chambers,” Taylor repeated. 

“No!” the people yelled. “No!”

“Fred, I’m telling you not to,” Lambert interjected. 

Penick didn’t take long to speak. 

“I work for this man,” he said, gesturing toward Lambert. 

Taylor then called upon a second police officer to clear the chambers, but once again nobody moved. Taylor, insisting that he, as the chairman, controls the chambers, appealed to Legislative Counsel Carolyn West for a legal opinion. She responded by reading a section of Cherokee code that states “The Principal Chief shall be charged with the responsibility of ensuring proper use, security, and maintenance of the Council House.”

So, the audience was allowed to stay, and many of them took advantage of the opportunity to address council before the issue came to a vote.

Lori Taylor, of Big Cove, started off the public comments by asking council to suspend any members involved with the dealings at Qualla Housing currently under investigation by the FBI. 

“Go home,” she said. “The FBI wouldn’t be here if you didn’t do anything wrong.”

When she finished speaking, Saunooke moved to kill the impeachment resolution as the audience cheered. Jones responded by moving to pass it, with Smith seconding the motion. 

Mary Wachacha, a tribal member from Yellowhill, spoke next, calling into question her representatives’ assertion that the impeachment effort was merely a response to feedback from community members. 

“There are 900 registered voters in the Yellowhill community, so unless you have three or 400 calls saying to impeach the chief, you’re not speaking for our community,” she said. “You are a living, prime example of exactly why we need term limits.”

Perhaps there are some tribal employees who are afraid to come to work, she said, but if so it’s probably for good reason. 

“The ones that I know that are afraid, they’re afraid because they’re not doing their job,” she said. 

The speakers kept coming. 

Dave Lambert told council that his political alliances got him demoted 12 years ago when former Principal Chief Michell Hicks took office. As a football coach, he said, he didn’t “make a big stink” about the demotion but just “kept my nose to the ground and kept winning.”

“I think Patrick’s a great guy. He’s honest. I think he’s trying to straighten up a lot of this stuff,” Dave Lambert said as applause broke out. “We don’t need to push him out. We need to push him up.”

Ann Blythe told council that she doesn’t view the accusations against Lambert as warranting impeachment and reminded the body that Lambert was elected with an overwhelming 71 percent of the vote. 

Even Wilma Taylor, who is Bill Taylor’s aunt and sister of his father Ed Taylor, a former Cherokee chief who was removed from office in the 1990s, spoke in favor of Lambert. 

“You’re saying this man got 71 percent of the vote but he’s not good enough to be our chief,” she told Bill Taylor. “Did you get that many votes?” 

Of eight speakers, the only one supporting impeachment was Mollie Grant, who had been the director of emergency management under Hicks’ administration. Grant was one of six senior-level employees who were let go when Lambert took office. 

“Over a year ago I come in here with a bunch of other tribal employees,” Grant said. “We were done wrong. We didn’t get due process. This man (Lambert) didn’t allow us to have our due process.”

Grant said that the roomful of Lambert supporters was not an accurate reflection of the community at large, claiming that supervisors were only letting employees off work to come support Lambert, not to oppose him. The crowd responded to the claim by yelling “bull” in unison. 

The in-person support Lambert received in council has been duplicated online. A Feb. 2 post that his wife Cyndi wrote on his public Facebook page referencing the impeachment attempt received 171 comments, and not a single one was negative toward Lambert. 


The chief’s response

Finally it was Lambert’s turn to address the issue. He maintained that he’d done nothing wrong, and that it was a shame to put the tribe through this ordeal. 

“The thing that kind of bugs me about this is that I could have acted like other chiefs,” Lambert told council. “I could have shut this down. I could have locked it down tight and y’all wouldn’t have even gotten your report, but in the mode of transparency I let this information come out of these departments. Two years ago, would you have gotten this done with the former chief?”

Lambert implied confidence that his popularity with the people wouldn’t suffer much as a result of the accusations when he asked council to consider calling a special election for his seat, rather than incurring the expense and spectacle of an impeachment. 

“If the people want me gone,” he said, “I’ll be glad to step aside.”

The suggestion of a special election didn’t garner much interest from council. However, Lambert said he does plan to call a grand council, a power granted him in the tribe’s Charter and Governing Document. A grand council is a gathering of all enrolled members in which decisions can be made on issues facing the tribe. 

“I’m going to take a vote during that and let the people decide this question,” Lambert said.

According to Lambert’s chief of staff Sage Dunston, decisions of the Grand Council supersede those of the Tribal Council. 

In the meantime, council will move forward with the impeachment effort. Some aspects of the original resolution were struck — such as those requiring Lambert to pay for his own defense and suspending him from office until the impeachment process is complete — after Attorney General Danny Davis advised council the provisions were unlawful. 

According to the rules used during a 2003 attempt to oust then-Principal Chief Leon Jones, the impeachment process will be similar to a court hearing, with Tribal Council sitting in place of judges. At least nine of the 12 must be present to constitute a quorum, and both sides will have legal representation and the ability to subpoena and cross-examine witnesses. Following the hearing, at least two-thirds of the Tribal Council must vote to remove the chief from office based on the offenses listed in the articles of impeachment. 

The next step in the process would be to approve articles of impeachment, which have yet to be drafted. The resolution passed last week directed that they be prepared for later approval by council. 

For council members in favor of impeachment, the clock is ticking. This is an election year on the Qualla Boundary, and all 12 council seats will be on the ballot in September.

For more information about the contents of the OIA report, read the story at 

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