Pay raise lawsuit filed in Tribal Court
By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
After months of threatening litigation, a lawsuit has been filed in Cherokee Tribal Court on the issue of the disputed pay raises approved by Tribal Council last fall. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for Justice & Accountability (EBCIJA) filed the suit on Tuesday, Oct. 6.
Lea Wolfe, a member of the organization said in a press statement, “The illegal pay raises contributed to a climate of distrust of our Tribal Council and Executive Branch. Tribal Council disregarded our laws as though they didn’t exist. They need to be held accountable.”
In addition to former Principal Chief Michell Hicks and former Vice Chief Larry Blythe, the following are named as defendants in the lawsuit and are being sued in their individual capacity: former Tribal Council Chairwoman Terri Henry, Tribal Council Chairman Bill Taylor, former Birdtown Rep. Gene “Tunney” Crowe Jr., Yellowhill Rep. Alan B. Ensley, Birdtown Rep. Albert R. Rose, Painttown Rep. Virginia Lee Bradley (Tommye) Saunooke, former Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell, Cherokee County – Snowbird Rep. Adam Wachacha, former Yellowhill Rep. David Wolfe, former Cherokee County – Snowbird Rep. Diamond Brown, former Tribal Council Chairman James “Jim” Owle, former Wolftown Rep. Michael Parker, and former Big Cove Rep. James “Bo” Taylor. Former EBCI Deputy of Finance Kim Peone is being sued in her official capacity.
Resolution No. 261 (2014), passed on Oct. 14, 2014, is the main point of contention in the lawsuit. That legislation approved the FY2015 EBCI tribal budget and included pay raises for the members of Tribal Council which the EBCIJA alleges is in violation of Section 117-15(a) which states, “Pay increases for the Tribal Council members shall not exceed the amount appropriated in that fiscal year for Tribal employees. These pay increases shall not take effect until the next elected Tribal Council members are seated…”
Wolftown Rep. Bo Crowe was the only one to vote against Res. No. 261 with Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy and Cherokee County – Snowbird Rep. Brandon Jones both being absent.
In the lawsuit, the EBCIJA alleges, “…the average Tribal employee pay raise was 1% of their salaries in 2013. Historically, pay increases have averaged 3% of each employee’s then-existing salary. Thus, Tribal Council pay raises far exceed ‘the amount appropriated in that fiscal year for Tribal employees’ un Cherokee Code 117-15(a).”
According to records from the EBCI Office of Budget and Finance that were attached to the official court documents filed on Wednesday, the pay for the Tribal Council Chairman increased from $75,000 to $86,400. The pay for the Vice Chairman increased from $72,500 to $83,500, and the pay for the other Tribal Council representatives increased from $70,000 to $80,600. The court document alleges that defendants Taylor, Brown, Owle and Parker all received “one-time lump-sum payments”.
According to the court documents, the plaintiffs allege in their lawsuit that they “sought to address the illegal pay increases through public comment at the November 4, 2014 (Tribal Council) meeting. They were denied the opportunity to speak. When questioned, ‘Where do we go now?’ Defendant Henry answered, ‘If you choose to bring a lawsuit against the Tribal Council, you have the right to do that and you can go to Tribal Court and do that if that’s what you wish to do.’”
Meghann Burke, an Asheville-based attorney with Brazil & Burke, P.A., is representing the EBCIJA and said in a press statement on Wednesday, “Tribal Council has a duty to uphold the law and to serve the people. When those basic tenets are violated, the courts offer recourse.”
In the lawsuit, the EBCIJA is seeking two causes of action. Firstly, “Plaintiff seeks an injunction to avoid the continued unlawful conversion of Tribal funds delineated in this Complaint. A favorable decision enjoining Defendants from continuing to disburse illegal pay increases and ordering the return of funds already illegally disbursed would redress and prevent the irreparable injuries to Plaintiff identified herein, for which Plaintiff has no other adequate remedy at law.”
Secondly, they allege that former Chief Hicks and former Vice Chief Blythe committed “Civil Conspiracy” by introducing the budget that they allege “plainly violates Cherokee Code 117-15(a) and Charter and Governing Document 7”. The suit further states, “Defendants Hicks and Blythe are jointly and severally liable for damages resulting from their unlawful acts.”
According to Burke, the defendants had not been served as of press time. The One Feather will follow up with this story as it develops and each defendant answers the suit.