Impeachment of Principal Chief underway
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council’s long-awaited impeachment hearing of Principal Chief Patrick Lambert began on Monday, May 22 at Council Chambers, and continued through Wednesday, May 24 (after press time).
Since February, Tribal Council has gone through multiple hurdles in its effort to impeach the chief including a veto by Lambert, and Grand Council, which is a special council made up of all enrolled members. The matter was also brought before the tribal court.
Tribal Council began the articles of impeachment against Lambert the same day the FBI raided the Qualla Housing Authority, where six members of Tribal Council sit on its board, and seized financial documents for allegedly misuse of federal money.
After getting the go-ahead from a ruling from Cherokee Supreme Court two weeks ago, Tribal Council originally scheduled the hearing for Thursday, May 15, but they moved it to accommodate Lambert, who was coming back from his son’s graduation in Las Vegas.
On Monday, the hearing began with Tribal Council Chairman Bill Taylor telling the general public to keep order throughout the process, threatening the possibility to force everyone to leave if they get rowdy. In the past, the audience had clapped or booed based on what council members said.
Scott Jones, representing Lambert, started the defense by asking certain members of Tribal Council to recuse themselves because of conflict of interest issues.
“As eventual witnesses called to testify and sit in that chair and be questioned, it’s impossible to sit in fair judgment of the Principal Chief,” Jones said of council members Bo Crowe and Albert Rose.
Jones then asked Taylor and Vice-Chairman Brandon Jones, who investigated the alleged wrongdoing, to recuse themselves and all eight council members who charged Lambert in the articles of impeachment to also recuse themselves. Applause broke out from the audience.
Taylor reminded the audience to stop clapping and act like they would in a normal courtroom.
Rob Saunooke, representing Tribal Council, explained that the Supreme Court has approved the power for Tribal Council to impeach and remove the chief. Taylor agreed and denied the motion to recuse himself and the other eight council members.
Saunooke then began calling his witnesses to explain each of the 12 articles of impeachment brought against Lambert. On Tuesday, Jones went through his list of witnesses to refute the 12 articles, including Lambert’s testimony.
This charge alleges that Lambert used his position as principal chief for personal gain by signing a contract with Harrah’s Casino with his hotel, Grand Cherokee Hotel.
Adele Madden, regional vice president of finance at Harrah’s, testified that discussions began in March 2015 and concluded in August 2015, before Lambert finally signed the contact in September, one month before he was officially sworn into office. Although signed in September, the contract didn’t begin until January 2016.
Saunooke questioned why the casino didn’t realize they signed a contract with a soon-to-be elected official and why it subsequently took 11 months to terminate the contract.
Madden responded that the process takes several months to end, and that Lambert did not ask to continue the contract after he was elected.
Article II and VII
Both of these charges state that after Lambert was elected, but before he was sworn into office, he used Jones to help prepare for his first day in office with new resolutions. Once sworn in, Lambert authorized payments to Jones for legal fees using the Tribe’s money.
Sage Dunston, Lambert’s Chief of Staff, said the legal service was used in preparation of Lambert’s first five resolutions, including the creation of a constitution and a census. Because he believed it was a bill for the tribe, Dunston said he approved the payment.
Lambert confirmed Dunston’s testimony, adding that the work was “done for the benefit of the tribe,” and that “the whole accusation that I’m billing for personal legal work is ludicrous.”
Suanooke questioned why Lambert didn’t use the Tribe’s own legal attorneys instead of his own legal service.
Article III pertains to three different contracts, and Council alleges that Lambert did not follow procedure to approve contracts by the business committee.
The main contract is a $62,000 agreement for renovating the executive office and adding time clocks for all tribal programs that Lambert and witness Erik Sneed, secretary of treasury, maintain was later absorbed into a later contract of $628,000 contract that was approved by the EBCI Business Committee.
Megan Gunner Yates, the manager of finance, said Dunston and Sneed directed her to approve the contracts. Yates said she felt coerced to approve it. While out on lunch, she later found out the contracts were “auto-approved.”
Saunooke asked Lambert why the correct procedure wasn’t used during the bid process from other companies, and he immediately used Sneed’s wife’s company with the remodeling. Lambert responded that he was made aware that TERO, the Tribal Employee Rights Office, handled the bid process.
Tribal Council alleges that Lambert made organizational structural changes within the executive office without approval from Tribal Council. Although changes were made, Lambert contests they were approved. He added that if some changes varied from his original plan, he doesn’t believe any of the changes are impeachable offenses.
Lambert allegedly cut off the use of tribal resources for the EBCI Tribal Employee Rights Office (TERO) after Tribal Council passed legislation to use it. Curtis Wildcatt, TERO director, testified that there were times he and other workers were unsure if they were on payroll, if they could do anything, and if they were going to be independent eventually.
During rebuttal, Jones asked if any credit cards, travel expenses, tribal benefits, legal services, IT support, human resources system, tribal holidays or vehicle use were ever cut off at any point. Wildcatt said no.
Tosh Welch, former manager for the Tribe, went on the Remember the Removal Bike Ride, which took him out of work for a couple months. In response, Lambert hired an interim manager. Welch testified that when he returned, he didn’t have his job back, but he kept getting paid.
Lambert testified that when he hired an interim manager, he was unaware that things didn’t go back to the way it was before Welch left for the bike ride. Because of this, Tribal Council alleges Lambert failed to keep his responsibility on focusing on the day-to-day duties of the Tribe.
This article states that Lambert had a meeting with council members Bo Crowe and Albert Rose and told them that he would appoint someone from their townships for the police commission and TERO. In exchange, Lambert asked if they would rescind a resolution.
Crowe and Rose both testified it was for two TERO appointments and nothing for police commission. During Lambert’s testimony, he said he asked for their suggestions on whom to appoint for one TERO and one police commission appointment, and then later asked if they could rescind a resolution. He argued the two conversations were not related.
“This happens everyday, talking about legislation— I need your support on this, I’ll give your support on that,” Lambert said. “There is nothing, no exchange of value of any sort or anything.”
When Jones asked if being a witness would have any effect on them as one of the judges in the hearing, Crowe said no. Rose said, “That’s what happened in the meeting.”
Tribal Council alleges that Lambert restricted the Office of Internal Audit’s full and unrestricted access to Tribal financial records.
Lambert contests that he found out nearly 160 people had access to the tribe’s financial records, and he wanted to find out why so many people had access, so he shut it down to ask each employee why they needed it.
Sharon Blankenship, chief audit executive of the Office of Internal Audit, testified that when it was originally cut off, she tried to find answers, but kept getting redirected. Eventually, she and others had to reapply to say why they needed access to the files for their jobs.
In Article X, Tribal Council alleges that Lambert’s blockage for Council to pay for a lawyer violated the law by Lambert’s failing to perform his duties. Lambert said he didn’t think the legislation was done correctly according to the Cherokee Code, so he blocked it.
The last two articles regard Lambert’s power to call Grand Council and the tribal money used to conduct is as inappropriate. Saunooke read into the record what the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled, deeming Grand Council had no “force of law” and was only “a public display of support for Lambert.” Saunooke brought no witnesses regarding the issue.
During a ten-minute break in Lambert’s testimony, councilman Crowe slammed his fist on his desk and told the crowd that he was tired of bickering. “If someone has done wrong, their time will come,” he said, referring to any elected official.
As of press time, arguments between Lambert and Tribal Council concluded, and Tribal Council has gone into deliberation to decide whether or not to impeach and remove Lambert.
If impeached and removed, Vice Chief Richard Sneed would become the new Principal Chief. Afterwards, Tribal Council can either hold a special election or appoint a temporary Vice Chief.
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