Former Tribal Council candidate seeks compensation for 2017 election outcome
A former Tribal Council candidate is seeking $800,000 from the tribe in compensation for “physical, mental and financial despair” allegedly inflicted on her and her family in the aftermath of the 2017 election.
During the heated 2017 election season that followed the controversial impeachment of former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, Ashley Sessions ran for a seat on Tribal Council representing Birdtown, a win that would have made her the first woman in over half a century to hold that seat. Election Day results showed her 12 votes behind Albert Rose, barely losing her bid for office. But she called for a recount, and the results reversed their positions — both candidates gained votes, but Sessions gained more, edging Rose by five votes.
However, Sessions was never seated. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Board of Elections determined that the recount “has not determined the accurate vote count” and ordered a runoff — but only between Sessions and Rose, despite every Tribal Council candidate that year seeing their vote total change after the Board of Elections ordered that all ballots be recounted. The runoff consisted of a single day of in-person voting, with no absentee or early voting opportunities, and Sessions lost.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Tribal Council funded an investigation into an alleged break-in and ballot tampering between the General Election and the recount, offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. The voting machine company attributed the discrepancy in vote totals to unreadable ballots — due both to early voters using red ink pens and to the Election Board, after running out of early voting ballots, manually marking some absentee ballots as early voting ballots. However, in an audit of the voting process, Arizona-based Veriti Consulting LLC charged that early ballots in which a voter had selected only one of a maximum two Tribal Council candidates were deliberately tampered with. While recount results for Birdtown included an additional 86 ballots compared to Election Day, Veriti found 76 fewer undervoted ballots after the recount than the number stated on the Election Day voting machine report.
The tribe paid nearly half a million to investigator Corporate Security Solutions Inc. to get to the bottom of the issue, Sessions wrote in the resolution accompanying her $800,000 request, but the company gave only one public update and a final report dated Dec. 10, 2019, that did not offer a conclusion.
Sessions told Tribal Council that she formulated her request for compensation after receiving an upsetting phone call from an FBI agent earlier this year. She said the agent called to let her know that she was “fine,” a statement that confused Sessions.
“He said, ‘Did you not know the men that the tribe hired were trying to get you indicted and charge you with tampering with that election?’” Sessions told Council. “And I said, ‘No, I did not. And he told me that there was absolutely no evidence that anything had occurred. They were not going to do any charges on anybody.”
As of press time, the FBI had not responded to a request for comment on this matter.
Sessions said that former Principal Chief Richard Sneed had suggested she submit a resolution to Tribal Council asking to be indemnified. The resolution, first submitted for the Sept. 7 Tribal Council session, would direct the tribe to pay Sessions $800,000 from its general endowment fund within five days of ratification. In return, Sessions would “fully and completely release, acquit and forever discharge” the tribe, various officials within it and CSSI “from any and all claims, action, causes of action and demands.”
Tribal Council, however, was hesitant to act.
“This is a clear court case, for what you’re asking,” said Painttown Rep. Dike Sneed. “When a decision’s handed down by the court, we’re bound to do what the decision says.”
Sessions pointed out that there is precedent for the tribe paying damages absent a court order. In 2017, Sneed agreed to pay seven employees who were fired under Lambert’s administration just under $100,000 apiece. That decision was not approved by Tribal Council and came after the employees filed a lawsuit in tribal court — but the payouts were not court-ordered and in fact were adjusted upward after a smaller settlement had already been signed.
Suing the tribe for compensation is not a simple matter for tribal members, because the tribe can easily strike down such claims using sovereign immunity as a defense.
“If you guys are insisting her [Sessions] to go to court when there’s cases that’s been handled already by this body, by our tribe, are y’uns going to give her a waiver of sovereignty?” asked Big Cove resident Lori Taylor. “Like, today. Are y’uns going to give that to her today?”
Taylor’s question was met by eight seconds of silence.
Birdtown Rep. Boyd Owle broke the silence by saying Sessions had asked that question already during a separate conversation that included about five Council members.
“I don’t think we ever gave her an answer,” he said. “I think it may be determined that we would not.”
Sessions contradicted that assessment.
“You all absolutely agreed that you would support waiving immunity, and I do have it recorded on my phone,” she said.
In an email, Sessions declined to provide that recording “at the moment” but said it was about 90 minutes long.
Taylor told Council that any waiver of immunity should extend well beyond Sessions, saying that the election disenfranchised Birdtown voters as well.
“I also think a waiver of sovereignty should go to those voters, and those voters should be able to file a lawsuit as well,” she said.
Tribal Council voted unanimously to table the resolution for a work session.