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No charges in Qualla Housing probe

FBI agents raid the Qualla Housing Authority building in February 2017. Holly Kays photo FBI agents raid the Qualla Housing Authority building in February 2017. Holly Kays photo

More than three years after the cold February day when 26 FBI agents descended on the Qualla Housing Authority building in Cherokee, the U.S. Department of Justice informed the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that its investigation yielded “no prosecutable cases,” and that the tribe can have the seized files back.

The announcement came in a Nov. 17, 2020, letter from U.S. Attorney R. Andrew Murray to EBCI Tribal Prosecutor Cody White.

To complete the investigation, the FBI obtained a search warrant and seized “a large quantity of loan files” in late October 2016, Murray wrote. Since then, the FBI as well as the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development have “extensively” reviewed the files and also investigated the procedures and funding for the loan programs in question.

“We have now completed the investigation, and we have concluded that there are no prosecutable cases regarding any violations of federal law,” Murray wrote.

News of the investigation came out in October 2016, when the DOJ sent Charlene Owle, then the director of Qualla Housing, a letter informing her that the FBI was investigating the organization for “possible criminal conduct related to certain loans and loan applications, among other matters.” The letter went on to say that any attempt to destroy, hide or falsify documents that might be requested over the course of the investigation could result in further charges. 

According to the November 2020 letter from Murray, the initial investigation came about “as a result of a request from (Patrick Lambert) the then-principal chief of the EBCI, who informed us of allegations that the Qualla Housing Authority had made loans contrary to regulations and requirements for such loans imposed by the federal government.”

Tribal officials, members of the press and tribal citizens watched from the other side of Acquoni Road on Feb. 2, 2017, while an FBI team spent hours filling two U-Haul trucks with filing cabinets, papers and hard drives from the QHA building.

Lambert said that the raid came about due to reports that staff at QHA had been destroying documents in defiance of the directives contained in the October 2016 letter. The same day that the raid took place, Lambert submitted an emergency resolution seeking to dissolve Qualla Housing.

While Lambert was not able to achieve that goal prior to his removal by impeachment in May 2017, Tribal Council did pass legislation in 2018 and 2020 that dissolved QHA, merged it with the tribe’s Housing and Community Development Division and updated tribal ordinances outlining the QHA’s role.

The merger of QHA and the Housing and Community Development Division created the Cherokee Indians Division of Housing, which now administers tribal housing programs and funds. This includes federal grant funds obtained through the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act.

While discussion about merging the two programs had existed as far back as 2007, the legislation that ultimately achieved that goal was introduced in 2017. In 2017, Principal Chief Richard Sneed — who was sworn into the office after the impeachment — told Tribal Council that growing per capita payments had made many tribal members ineligible for federal housing assistance, and that as a result Qualla Housing had been building very few homes, instead spending its money mostly to rehab and rent out houses that would be better off replaced than repaired. Additionally, Sneed said Qualla Housing had been using incoming mortgage payments to operate the program instead of putting them into a revolving loan fund for future mortgages, like it was supposed to.

While the DOJ has determined that there is not evidence of federal laws being broken, the tribe will have the option to review the evidence on its own to determine if any tribal laws were violated. Sneed’s office declined to comment as to whether such a review will take place but said that the tribe has not yet received the files from the DOJ.

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