Impeachment in Cherokee

Impeachment hearings begin: Prosecution alleges corruption in Lambert administration

Impeachment hearings begin: Prosecution alleges corruption in Lambert administration

During a full day of testimony Monday, May 22, the prosecution against Principal Chief Patrick Lambert made its case that Lambert’s administration has operated on a double standard, with one set of rules for him and his supporters and another set for everybody else. 

• Cherokee council removes Chief Lambert from office

The charges
Tribal members speak

The nine witnesses to take the stand spoke to allegations that Lambert had massively overspent on contracts without proper approval, denied payment for Tribal Council’s legal representation while shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for his own, and interfered with the Office of Internal Audit’s access to the records it needed to fulfill its function. Allegations also included violations of human resources policies and trading of political favors.

“I think the council has seen enough, and we have enough information to see a pattern of behavior, a method by which the Principal Chief has decided to operate as the chief of the tribe that violates not only his oath of office but the traditions and customs of our tribe and threatens the ability of the tribe to move forward in any way, shape or form,” said Robert Saunooke, the prosecuting attorney representing Tribal Council, during his opening statement. 

Lambert’s attorney Scott Jones, meanwhile, responded to each of the 12 articles of impeachment in his opening statement and told Tribal Council that this was “the saddest day” in his 25 years arguing cases in Cherokee. 

“I stand here believing that you’ve decided you are going to remove the principal chief,” Jones said. “I hope I’m wrong. I know that if you listen to the evidence and you base your vote on the evidence you hear and the law and not on what somebody told you to do and not because you’re angry … you won’t vote to remove this chief.”

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Unrest in the Finance Department 

Much of Monday’s testimony was tedious and detail-oriented, dealing with specific procedures and terms within the offices of finance and internal audit. However, one testimony was particularly explosive — that of Megan Yates, purchasing manager for the tribe’s finance department. 

“The atmosphere is not pleasant,” Yates said in response to Saunooke’s question about her current work environment. “I don’t feel as if myself or the other employees are fully aware of some occurrences that have happened since the impeachment proceedings and other things have started.”

When Tribal Council voted to draft articles of impeachment, it also voted to hire a special prosecuting attorney, though the resolution did not name that attorney. Later in the spring, R. Daniel Boyce of the law firm Nexsen Pruet was selected to fill the role, with Vice Chief Richie Sneed signing off on a contract for services not to exceed $175,000. The selection was not made during an open session of council, and anti-impeachment councilmembers have said they were not part of the discussions. 

According to Yates, Secretary of Finance Erik Sneed told her to be on the lookout for this request for payment and to let him know when it came up. She said Sneed told her to send an email to the Tribal Operations Program to ask for additional documentation before releasing the funds. 

“He was in my office the entire time, ensuring that the email was sent out correctly,” Yates said. 

Tribal Operations replied by attaching the contract, Yates said, and Sneed told Yates he’d let her know what to do about it after lunch. However, when she returned from lunch she found the request had already been pre-approved by her coworker Susie Wolfe. At the time, Yates said, she believed that Wolfe had erroneously approved the contract and let Sneed know what had happened and that the purchase order could still be stopped. Sneed said he’d be in touch. 

“I didn’t hear anything. I came in the next day and Susie was gone,” Yates said. 

“There was an issue that arose where an item was approved without what we considered to be valid backup,” Sneed said during his testimony. “There was concern that had been done in a malicious way. We felt like the prudent thing was to investigate that.”

So Wolfe was suspended, but ultimately no wrongdoing was found and no disciplinary action was taken, Sneed said. 

However, Yates said, handling of the Nexen Pruet contract was in sharp contrast to the way expenses for the chief’s legal representation were handled. 

“We were told when I first took the position that we weren’t to question requests that came from the chief’s office,” she said. 

Sneed’s testimony contradicted this statement. According to Sneed, he asked the finance department to “question those items, and whether or not they are in full compliance with the law is not ultimately my decision to make.”

According to Yates, she was asked to approve multiple expenses for legal services that didn’t have contracts attached to them. These services came from three different law firms, including Asheville-based Cloninger, Barbour, Searson, Jones and Cash — this is the office that Lambert’s attorney Jones works out of. Saunooke entered documents showing the firm had been paid about half a million dollars since Lambert took office in October 2015. 

Yates testified that, on several occasions, she emailed Sneed that she was not comfortable approving the requests. The emails were read into the record. In each instance, Sneed directed Yates to approve the requests and move forward. 

During his testimony, however, Chief of Staff Sage Dunston said there was good reason that more documentation was required for Nexsen Pruet. Tribal law states that both the executive office and the legislative office should have their own attorneys who are not employees of the tribe — currently, Jones works in this capacity for the executive branch and Carolyn West represents the legislative branch. However, Nexsen Pruet was to be a special prosecutor and therefore needed a contract, Dunston said. 

Yates also told council that she had felt threatened in her job, which she began in February 2017. She had worked for the tribe for 14 years, employed as senior buyer before taking her current position. In June 2016, she said, the chief called her into his office. He began the meeting by asking her if she liked her job and then asked her to pull various contracts from the Operations Division, where she had previously worked. 

“When he asked you if you liked that job, how did you take that?” Saunooke said. 

“As a threat,” Yates said.

Yates also related another incident that occurred in Lambert’s presence. Tensions between she and Susie Wolfe were high, and Yates had asked for mediation. She was in Lambert’s office to discuss the Nexsen Pruet payment, and Sneed and Dunston were also there. Yates said she was worried about her job. 

“He (Sneed) said for me not to worry about it,” Yates said. “I was prettier than Susie, I dressed nicer than Susie and my hair was better than hers.”

Yates’ testimony turned volatile toward the end, when it was Tribal Council’s turn to ask questions. 

“Do you feel like you’ve given honest answers?” asked Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove. 

“I know I have,” Yates said. 

“Are they honest answers or —“

“Are you insulting me?” asked Yates. 

The back-and-forth was interrupted by reaction from the audience, but McCoy continued by asking, “Are they beliefs or are they truths?”

“They’re truths,” Yates said. “I don’t tell lies, Teresa. I don’t tell lies.”


Records lapse at Internal Audit 

Happenings at the Office of Internal Audit were also a focus of the hearing. Specifically, a lack of access to records that has been ongoing since March 29.

OIA Director Sharon Blankenship testified that her office — where she has worked for 11 years — has always had full access to the tribe’s human resources records, as is required by law. However, on March 29 she found herself unable to access records through the tribe’s computer system, called MUNIS. 

“We were unaware of why we didn’t have access,” Blankenship said. “The first thing we did was to submit a work order through the IT work desk. Those work orders were never answered or acknowledged.”

On April 5, Blankenship testified, she had a meeting with Secretary of State Terri Henry during which she was told to contact Secretary of Finance Sneed and Secretary of Human Resources Marsha Jackson. Sneed replied that she should send in confidentiality statements to have access restored, which she did. However, to date the OIA is still without full access, Blankenship said. 

“We only have access to Internal Audit’s financial information,” Blankenship said. “We recently were given access to per capita information in order to complete the per capita audit that’s in progress.”

The OIA has a tipline for people to report potential concerns, but lack of access has caused some investigations to be put on hold, Blankenship said. 

The defense sees the issue differently.

“What happened was that the secretary of treasury (Sneed) discovered that there were way too many leaks in the system that allowed access to tribal financial records, so he put in place a new system where everybody had to apply for access to the system,” Jones said during his opening statement. “There was never any effort to exclude Internal Audit from the system. It was simply an effort to make that system more secure, to make tribal financial records more secure.”

During her testimony, Blankenship said that Sneed had made statements along those same lines during meetings she had attended. However, she said, the office is still without full access.

Another employee from Internal Audit, Rebecca Claxton, took the stand as well. Claxton had completed the pair of investigations that spurred Tribal Council to write the articles of impeachment. She testified as to her method for completing the reports and her various findings showing “deviations from rules, policies and processes.”

“There was some inconsistencies in following policies and procedures,” Claxton said. “There was a lack of communication. There wasn’t always a clear and consistent tone at the top as far as salary increases go.”

Findings included contracts executed without proper approval and deviations from human resources policies and procedures. The findings are included among the articles of impeachment (see story on page 7). Claxton testified that in her eight years working with internal audit, she had never seen contracts executed without Business Committee approval, as had been found in the investigation into Lambert’s administration. 

However, upon cross-examination Claxton said that, though Lambert had provided responses to each of the findings, those responses had not been included in the report. 

“They didn’t change the findings,” Claxton said. 

Claxton also concurred that some councilmembers had issued subpoenas during the investigation, something that she had never seen before and had not requested. 

Blankenship, during her testimony, said she had been involved with audits before that included a recommendation to prosecute, a recommendation that in many cases was followed. 

“Did you recommend any prosecution arising out of either one of these audits?” Jones asked. 

“No. I’m not the judge and the jury,” Claxton said. “I’m just the presenter and gatherer of information in this case.”

“In either one of these audits, did you find anything at all to suggest any improper personal financial benefit for Chief Lambert?” asked Jones. 

“No,” Claxton said, later stating that though there was “unlawfulness,” there was “no criminal element to it.”


Requests for recusal and challenges to impartiality 

While the hearing featured all the back-and-forth questioning and legal terms typical of a court hearing, the day also included some odder moments, the first of which happened before the meeting even came to order. It involved a request from the defense that certain members of Tribal Council — the majority of the body, in fact — recuse itself from the proceedings. 

Principles of due process, said defense attorney Steve Cash, pervade all cultures and include that “those who sit in judgment are not biased, are not swayed implicitly because they were involved in the prosecution of the matter or the investigation of the matter or have some interest in the outcome of a matter.”

Because Councilmembers Bo Crowe and Albert Rose are witnesses, he said, they should recuse themselves. So should Taylor and Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, who issued subpoenas in the investigation, and the eight members of council who signed the resolution to bring impeachment charges against Lambert. 

Saunooke replied that the Cherokee Supreme Court has already ruled that Tribal Council has the authority to impeach and said that, “it is improper to now question the validity of you as councilmembers that somehow you can’t be fair and impartial.”

Taylor and Legislative Attorney Carolyn West spent a few moments whispering together, and then Taylor announced that the request for recusal had been denied. The body as a whole did not vote on or discuss the request. 

Shortly afterward, McCoy and Taylor got into an argument during which McCoy took issue with the rules for the impeachment hearing, saying she had not been involved in the process of approving them. 

“That’s enough,” Taylor said. 

“What are you gonna do Bill, throw me out?” asked McCoy. 

“Yes I will,” Taylor said. 

The two went back and forth until Taylor asked police to remove McCoy from the room, to which McCoy replied that she was not leaving. There was a brief standoff until Saunooke, the prosecuting attorney, told council that he agrees “there needs to be some respectful discussion, but I don’t want to see her removed.”

However, perhaps the most unusual moment came toward the end of the day, when Councilmembers Rose and Crowe separately stepped down from the horseshoe to be sworn in and take the stand.

Both men testified that they had been invited to a meeting with Lambert during which he offered to appoint members from their communities to the Tribal Employment Rights Office board if they would agree to table or withdraw a resolution he disagreed with. 

“The feeling I got was that he was doing me a favor by letting me nominate somebody from Birdtown by getting us to rescind that. I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” Rose said. 

During his opening statement, Jones had said that Rose and Crowe did not rescind the resolution, but Lambert did appoint the representatives suggested. Therefore, the discussion was not an attempt at bribery. It is likely that Lambert will say something along these lines when he takes the stand May 23, which will occur after The Smoky Mountain News’ press time.

“In a minute you’re going to go back up around and sit on this panel, and sometime tomorrow the principal chief is going to testify and if he testifies different about what happened at that meeting, I take it you’re going to believe what you said over what he said,” said Jones. 

“I’m stating what was just said in that meeting and I think Bo Crowe will say the same thing,” Rose said. 

“But when it comes down to choosing between what you said and what somebody else said, you’re naturally going to go with what you said, right?” Jones pressed. 

“That’s what happened in the meeting,” said Rose. 

“I’m not trying to trick you. It’s a simple question,” said Jones. 

“That’s just what happened in the meeting,” Rose repeated. 

“So you don’t want to answer my question?” asked Jones. 

“That’s what happened in the meeting,” Rose said again. 

“That’s not my question,” said Jones. “If it comes down to what to believe, you’ll believe yourself over what some other witness testifies that might be different?”

“I’m telling you what happened in the meeting,” said Rose. “That’s exactly what I said.”

Under questioning from McCoy, Rose said that he would recuse himself from discussions on the particular article of impeachment he had testified about but not from the impeachment deliberations as a whole. 

“I’ll keep an open mind, Teresa, I always have,” Rose said. 

Crowe’s testimony gave an identical account of the meeting, and Jones followed it up with the same question as to whether Crowe would believe his own testimony over Lambert’s. 

“Yes, because I was there and I know what was said,” Crowe said. 

The hearing, which had started at 10 a.m., continued on until 5 p.m. but didn’t actually conclude. The session ended with the prosecution still having several witnesses yet to call and the defense having yet to even begin its case. The hearing was continued to 9 a.m. the next day, with Tribal Council to determine the outcome once all presentations have concluded. In a May 10 decision, the Cherokee Supreme Court determined that the body has the power to both impeach and remove any elected official. 

For his part, Lambert has consistently said that the impeachment is retaliation for his efforts to clean up corruption in the tribe and that the process has not gone forward in accordance with tribal laws. If Tribal Council votes to remove him, Lambert will likely file a lawsuit in Tribal Court. A hearing on a lawsuit already filed in the matter is still pending in tribal court.


To be continued

As of press time, the defense had not yet begun to make its case and the prosecution had not quite concluded its case. Be sure to pick up The Smoky Mountain News next week for more coverage of the impeachment hearings, and check this week for updates on the outcome of the impeachment proceedings.

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