Frustrated with a legal system they believe has failed them, members of the Spokane Tribe have launched a recall effort to oust three of their leaders who were charged this summer in tribal court with criminal misconduct.The charges of misappropriation of tribal property, abuse of office and intimidation filed against Tribal Chairman Greg Abrahamson, Vice Chairman Warren Seyler and council member David Wynecoop Jr. were dismissed in August under circumstances that led many tribal members to believe justice was not served.
The Spokane Tribal Business Council members had been accused by the tribe’s former prosecutor, Dale Nagy, of using the tribe’s status to purchase $56,000 worth of surplus state property, including brush chippers and earth-moving equipment, at a discounted rate for use by a private construction company on the Spokane Reservation.
The three do not deny buying the equipment for Moyer Construction, but said no crime was committed since they did not profit by the arrangement. The company paid the tribe for the equipment the council members bought from the state in 2004 and 2005. The leaders also said they would have used the tribe’s status to purchase the equipment this way for any business owned by tribal members.
“We do a lot of projects for tribal members,” Abrahamson said.
Some Spokanes, however, said their leaders were giving a unique competitive advantage to the company, which is run by Jeff Moyer, a non-Indian related by marriage to Chairman Abrahamson.
These dissident tribal members say a new generation of leaders is undermining the sovereignty of the tribe of about 2,400 by using the tribe’s status as a nation within a nation to protect themselves against the charges. State and federal authorities appear reluctant to pursue the matter, leaving it to the tribal court system to mete out justice.
“Someone should be able to find a way to help us,” tribal elder Marie Grant said. “The Spokane Tribe has been working hard to re-establish cultural ways and traditions and everything these guys are doing goes against our traditions and cultural beliefs.”
Tribal members said they are also angry that three legal officials associated with the case have either left the tribe’s employ or were forced out by the Tribal Council. They include Nagy, who filed the charges; Trudy Flamand, the chief judge who signed a warrant to recover some of the property allegedly purchased illegally; and a tribal attorney, Margo Hill, who advised the council against purchasing the equipment. All three were employed at the will of the Tribal Council.
Hill, the first of her tribe to graduate from law school, was to be a witness against the tribal leaders. She believes her dismissal was retribution.
“For her to be treated like this is criminal,” said former Tribal Council member Ronald “Buzz” Gutierrez, who first brought the council’s actions to the attention of tribal members at a June 3 news conference the day before he lost re-election to the council.
On June 30, Steven Aycock, a Colville Confederated tribal judge who was asked to hear the case in an agreement with the Spokane Tribe, found probable cause to move the case forward and scheduled September trial dates for the three council members.
Nagy said in an interview that the intimidation charges against the three council members stemmed from a five-day suspension of Hill, who advised the council members in a May 9, 2005, memorandum that the tribe’s purchase of the property for Moyer Construction would be illegal. Believing the purchase was from the federal General Services Administration, she cited federal law.
“Having purchased the property in the Spokane Tribe’s name and then turn around and sell it would constitute fraud,” the memo read. “Tribes are being cited for such activities.”
Nagy, a non-Indian who left his job with the tribe in early July for a position in the Spokane County prosecutor’s office, said the Tribal Council’s contract attorney, David Lundgren, of Portland, asked him to step down from the case and appoint a special prosecutor. When he refused, citing his promise to treat all tribal members equally, Nagy said Lundgren told him, “The next option would be to fire you.”
Lundgren declined comment on Nagy’s allegation, saying only that such information was “privileged.”
Nagy, however, said he did not resign as tribal prosecutor as a result of intimidation, but to take advantage of a better opportunity with Spokane County.
Upon leaving the tribe, Nagy offered to act as special prosecutor without compensation in the prosecution of the three council members. This, he said, would relieve the next prosecutor from having to come in and immediately prosecute the people who hired him.
“I’m familiar with this case, and though I would have to take a leave from my job here, I was willing to do that to finish this up,” Nagy said in his Spokane County office.
Nagy’s offer to act as special prosecutor was declined by Spokane Tribal Attorney Rory Flint Knife.
Nagy said Margo Hill had supported him when she was his boss and he felt an obligation to the tribe and to Hill to prosecute the case.
“Here is a lady that has been nothing but the pride of her tribe and worked really hard, who was suspended and fired,” Nagy said.
On July 26, Hill was fired by the council. In a letter of termination, Abrahamson cited his lack of trust in her ability to maintain attorney-client confidentialities.
To Hill, the council’s message was clear: ” ‘If you question us, we will make you pay,’ ” she said.
The Tribal Council, citing personnel matters, declined to comment on the reason for Hill’s termination. Tribal attorney Flint Knife said there was no evidence that Hill was intimidated.
Also on July 26, council members declined to renew their contract with Judge Flamand, an enrolled Blackfeet who had been the Spokane Tribe’s chief judge for three years. Her dismissal without explanation left the tribe without an attorney on staff at its tribal court, she said.
“I think anyone that had a hand in the fraud charges against the three tribal councilmen were summarily dismissed,” Flamand said. “I assume they let me go because I may have had a part in the charges.”
The Tribal Council members, citing personnel issues, also declined to comment on why Flamand’s contract was not renewed.
But Chairman Abrahamson noted, “It was not tied to the allegations.”
On the day Hill and Flamand were let go, the Tribal Council hired attorney Ted Schott as temporary prosecutor. In August, Schott, citing insufficient time to respond to defense motions, filed for dismissal of the charges without prejudice, which would allow a new permanent prosecutor to refile the charges if he so chose.
On Aug 24, Judge Aycock granted the motion for dismissal.
The tribe now has a permanent prosecutor, attorney Lewis Schrawyer, who declined to refile charges in the case.
“None of the three councilmen embezzled, stole, knowingly converted, or criminally misapplied any of the tribe’s funds,” Schrawyer wrote in a Sept. 8 memo. “Even given that the intended purchase was to then transfer title to Moyer Construction, there still is no crime under the language of the statute because there was no loss to the tribe or gain to the council members.”
Tribal Council members believe the charges against them and the recall effort are the result of political infighting on the reservation.
“It divides us, and it’s wrong,” Wynecoop said.
Nagy said Schrawyer’s memo merely restates arguments that were rejected by the Tribal Court at the June 30 arraignment.
“The question of whether the councilmen violated tribal law should have been a question of fact determined by a jury of the councilmen’s peers,” Nagy said. “Unfortunately the charges were dismissed and not refiled by a series of prosecutors hired by the councilmen.” Tom Rice, chief criminal assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, said he has received complaints from tribal members but the matter is not under federal investigation, and Stanley Speaks, the regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said it was “an internal tribal issue.”
“We don’t get involved unless there is fraud, waste or abuse of federal funds,” said Speaks.
At the state Department of General Administration, which sold the equipment to the tribe, surplus program manager Doug Coleman said the tribe needs to take care of the situation if it wants to continue to be a priority customer.
“We will not be selling stuff to the Spokane Tribe in the future without a guarantee,” Coleman said.
So as a last recourse, dissident tribal members have begun a recall effort. Under the tribal Constitution, they must gather 125 valid signatures of enrolled tribal members who are of voting age to force a vote at a general Tribal Council meeting.
Richard Garry, a tribal employee, is among those leading the effort, which he said is a risky proposition on the reservation where the tribe is the largest employer.
“My name is on the top of the petition, and no doubt I will be fired when it is turned in,” he said.
“People are afraid for their jobs,” said Hill, also a participant in the recall drive. She and others said the Spokanes’ standing among neighboring tribes has diminished as a result of the allegations against their leadership.
Hill defined tribal sovereignty as “the ability to make laws and be governed by them.” Her leaders, she said, “are eroding our sovereignty when they refuse to be governed by laws.”
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