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Cherokee impeachment efforts will continue

Cherokee impeachment efforts will continue

Some tribal members are saying their rights were violated after three pieces of legislation that would curtail impeachment proceedings against Principal Chief Patrick Lambert were denied last week in successive votes during which no discussion was allowed.

It took council mere minutes to power through a veto from Lambert and two protest resolutions — one from Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, and one from tribal member Janell Rattler, of Snowbird. Each item went to a vote with a no-discussion rule strictly enforced by Council Chairman Dennis “Bill” Taylor, of Wolfetown.


One veto, two protests

Lambert’s veto of the impeachment resolution was first on the agenda. The resolution seeking his impeachment, passed Feb. 2, had actually already been signed — but by Vice Chief Richie Sneed, not by Lambert. The impeachment resolution had included a provision giving Sneed the power to ratify it, as Lambert had “a conflict of interest in this matter.”

Lambert, meanwhile, contended that the provision violated the law, as the tribe’s Charter and Governing Document explicitly states that it’s the chief prerogative to ratify or veto legislation. His veto letter stated that he had “committed no impeachable offences” and said that the more Tribal Council moved forward without allowing him to state his case, “the more it looks like a witch hunt.” He criticized council for “hav[ing] us all spinning wheels in a losing battle” rather than working for the best interest of the tribe. 

His letter was read, and a vote taken. The vote mirrored that taken on Feb. 2, with only Councilmembers Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown; Richard French, of Big Cove; and McCoy opposing impeachment. 

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Then Rattler’s protest came before council. It contained a brief cover letter informing council that the 37 Snowbird community members whose signatures were attached protested impeachment and requested that council schedule a hearing accordingly. It included a resolution that, if passed, would have rescinded the impeachment resolution.

The resolution was never read, however. After the cover letter was read into the record, Taylor called that one of two moves be made — to hear the protest or to deny the protest. If council voted to hear the protest, a separate session would be scheduled for the protesting parties to make their case. 

McCoy began to ask that anybody who wanted to say something be given the chance to speak, but Taylor cut her off. 

“You know the process,” he said, banging his gavel. “The process has always been the same, Teresa (McCoy). The letter is read into the record and at that point in time there are two moves that can be made, to either approve the protest or one to deny.” 

“Can you show me where we don’t discuss that?” McCoy asked. 

“We’ve done it every time we’ve been in here, you know that,” Taylor responded. 

Saunooke moved to hear the protest, with McCoy as a second. And Councilmember Travis Smith moved to deny the protest, with a second from Vice Chairman Brandon Jones. 

“Will y’uns at least read the ordinance?” asked Rattler. 

“No,” said Taylor. 

Then Lambert came up to the podium. 

“Mr. Chairman, I’d request we go into closed session and receive legal advice on what you’re about to do,” he said. 

“No, we’re going to move on, Chief,” said Taylor. 

“I think it’s important that this tribal body hear from their legal council,” Lambert replied. 

“Chief, we’re going to move forward,” said Taylor. “I’ve got two moves on the floor.” 

“Mr. Chairman, I’d move that —”

Taylor cut McCoy off with the bang of a gavel. 

“We’ve got two moves on the floor, and we’re going to vote on them,” he said. 

Council voted overwhelmingly to deny the protest, with only McCoy, Saunooke, French and Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown, voting to hear it. 

Many members of the audience called out in anger. When they quieted down, council moved on to the next protest, McCoy’s, which also sought to rescind the impeachment resolution. McCoy’s resolution went a step further, however, asking for formal investigations into a whole host of issues covering conduct by a variety of council members. 

Once more, the letter was read, the resolution was not, and council voted without discussion to deny the protest, in a vote that mirrored that taken on Rattler’s protest. 


Reaction from tribal members

Tribal members stuck around for the remainder of the meeting, which finished more than an hour ahead of schedule. During breaks, they gathered in the parking lot or on the council house porch, and they weren’t shy about giving their opinion on what had transpired inside. 

“They should have called a special meeting when discussing an issue like this, and they didn’t do that. They made a decision without the people’s knowledge,” Rattler, author of the first protest resolution, said in an interview outside the council house. Before deciding to move forward with the impeachment vote, she believes, her councilmembers should have called a special meeting of the Snowbird Community Club to gather input. 

“Today it upset them that they weren’t heard,” she continued. “It was like they didn’t care what the people wanted.”

“I think the things they’re doing ain’t right,” said June Welch, a 51-year-old Cherokee man who lives in Whittier. “Just like I said in there, we’re one people. We’re supposed to stand behind each other. When one of us falls, we’re supposed to pick them up and help them. That’s why I’m here.”

Birdtown community member Ashley Sessions, 28, also expressed opposition to how council had been conducting business. But at least the protests were read in council, even if no discussion was allowed and the resolutions themselves didn’t see the light of day, she said. At the beginning of the meeting, McCoy invited Sessions to the podium to ask council why a resolution she’d submitted hadn’t been added to the agenda.

“They didn’t even read my resolution,” Sessions said during a follow-up interview. “They just completely turned me away and that’s why I wanted to address them and ask them why. I never got anything in writing, so I wanted to know why.”

During council, Taylor told Sessions that her resolution wasn’t something council could handle — it dealt with alleged intimidation on the part of Councilmember Smith and needed to go to the Office of Internal Audit, which is charged with enforcing the ethics code Sessions believes Smith broke. 

“They informed me I needed to take it to Internal Audit, so that’s why I’m going to do,” Sessions said. 

In a text message, Smith said he has not read Sessions’ resolution and reiterated that Internal Audit, not council, is the proper place for it to be heard. He did not comment on the allegations themselves. 


What the law says about protest hearings

Taylor based his enforcement of the no-discussion rule for protest resolutions on the premise that protests had always been handled that way. But a review of several recent protests brought before council shows that’s not necessarily the case. 

On May 5, 2016, council received a protest of its approval of Joseph Arch Conseen’s will. The protest letter, from Joseph’s widow Lorraine Conseen, said she hadn’t received notice that the issue was coming before council. 

After the protest letter was read, council proceeded to have a full 13 minutes of discussion on the topic, covering everything from applicable sections of tribal law to customs pertinent to such situations. 

“Any other moves? Any other discussion?” Taylor asked at one point before the vote was taken.

Council heard a protest letter the previous month as well, on April 7, 2016, filed by McCoy. That protest, which dealt with the licensure of Dora Reed Children’s Center, resulted in a six-minute discussion before coming to a vote. 

Lambert believes that council violated the law by curtailing discussion on last week’s protests. In a Facebook post, he said that he didn’t expect his veto to be upheld but that preventing tribal members from speaking on their protest resolutions was “inexcusable and a clear violation.”

Lambert sees this as further proof of his belief that if any current tribal official deserves impeachment, it’s not him. 

“I am proceeding to build grounds on their violations of the Charter and our Code to potentially bring impeachment on those who have violated the law or been an accomplish (sic) to breaking the law,” he wrote. “I will use every bit of my authority, legal education and experience to ensure the voices of our Cherokee people are heard in their Council Chambers.”

The right to protest decisions of council is clearly outlined in the tribal code. The code states that any party who disagrees with a decision of council or its committees “shall have the right to one protest of the decision.”

The code lays out the timeline for submitting protests and states that each protest should include a written resolution outlining the action sought upon approval. No decision involving multiple parties may be heard or decided until “a hearing is scheduled and all interested parties are provided reasonable notice of that hearing.”

The code does not, however, lay out the process that Tribal Council has used when dealing with protests — namely, holding a vote to deny or hear the protest upon initially receiving it and scheduling a hearing only if the majority of council elects to do so. While it is possible that other written policies exist governing the protocol for hearing protests, a request to Legislative Attorney Carolyn West for copies of those policies was not fulfilled as of press time. 

In Lambert’s view, however, the law was violated when council shut down the discussion. He believes the section dealing with protests involving multiple parties most definitely applies here, as Rattler’s resolution includes the signatures of 37 tribal members and McCoy submitted her resolution following a meeting of about 50 tribal members from the Big Cove community. 

“No where (sic) in this law does it allow the Chairman to shut out our elders and members from having the right to speak and be heard! This is simply a violation of our rights as members of this Tribe. Yet what happened? The Chairman absolutely refused to hear any elders or other members and forced a quick vote to shut it down … I think the question is valid to ask, why not file another protest and demand to have a hearing as is allowed under the law. Let this Council vote again to violate the law,” Lambert wrote on his public Facebook page. 

For his part, however, Taylor is focused on the fact that the outcome of last week’s meeting means the impeachment process against Lambert will proceed. Tribal Council must first approve articles of impeachment, and then a hearing will take place at the council house with an outcome decided at the end of the proceedings. 

“It is expected the hearings will be concluded in one day,” Taylor said in a statement. “As of today, no date has been confirmed for the impeachment proceedings.”



The backstory

The Feb. 2 vote to begin impeachment proceedings against Principal Chief Patrick Lambert followed the Jan. 18 release of an investigation into contract executions and human resources decisions under Lambert’s administration. 

The report listed five contracts whose amounts had exceeded the amount approved or that had been executed without proper approval from the Business Committee. It also listed nine areas in which policies, procedures or laws pertaining to human resources decisions had not been followed — though the paragraphs explaining the violations found in five of those nine areas were completely blacked out in the publicly released copy. 

Nine of the 12 Tribal Council members felt that the findings warranted calling for an impeachment hearing. However, Lambert said that he had done nothing wrong and had solid explanations for every one of the supposed violations — if Tribal Council would be willing to hear them. He said impeachment is retaliation for his efforts to expose alleged criminal wrongdoing in the tribe that’s carried over from the prior administration. 

In fact, on the very day that council voted to begin impeachment, 26 FBI agents showed up to raid the Qualla Housing Authority, which is the subject of investigation. Of the 12 councilmembers, six sit on the Qualla Housing Authority board. 

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