By RICHARD G. SNEED
In 2015, seven former tribal employees sued the Tribe and former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert for damages for alleged wrongful termination, among other claims. Neither Tribal Council nor any of its members were named as defendants in the lawsuit. Patrick Lambert was named specifically in the lawsuit as a defendant – individually and in his official capacity as Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The lawsuit was directed solely at the executive branch. Neither I nor Tribal Council participated in the terminations or were given any decision-making role in the terminations. These terminations were supposed to be part of a large re-organization, a re-organization that had not been approved by Tribal Council. Re-organization without prior approval by Tribal Council formed the basis for one of the articles of impeachment (Article IV) of former Principal Chief Lambert, for which he was found guilty.
In response to the plaintiffs’ complaint, the Tribe filed several responsive documents at the court. One of those documents was a motion to dismiss based on the defense of sovereign immunity. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, but that didn’t end the matter. Both sides of the dispute – the plaintiffs and Patrick Lambert – appealed to the Cherokee Supreme Court. After oral argument at the Supreme Court, the presiding justices suggested that the parties should try to mediate and settle the lawsuit. The settlement of the lawsuit was reached after a formal mediation conducted by a neutral third-party attorney/mediator. The mediation was attended by the parties and their attorneys, including the attorney for the Tribe’s insurer. Patrick Lambert and his attorney W. Scott Jones were invited to participate in the mediation but chose not to.
I authorized the settlement after weighing the risks, costs and discord that come with continued litigation. Among other things, I determined that in view of the recent upheaval in tribal government, the best approach was to promote unity and healing within the Tribe and to settle the lawsuit. The settlement complies with the Tribe’s fiscal management policies and does not require the appropriation of any additional funding from Tribal Council. Nothing in the settlement constitutes an admission of wrongdoing and this settlement resolves all of these claims forever.
I believe our employees deserve to be treated with respect. Tribal personnel policies are in place to protect the Tribe and its employees. But, more than that, I think those who use their talents, experience and education to benefit the Tribe are one of our most valuable resources. Our Tribe must work to have unity and to resist the continuing allegations of wrongdoing by those who themselves have jeopardized our Tribe through misconduct. During this season of hope and joy, we should all join together to work for the betterment of our Tribe through good work not discontent.
As the Tribe looks forward, I anticipate moving a heavy legislative agenda with the state of North Carolina beginning with the special session on Jan. 10, 2018 and the reconvening of the legislative short session in May. I will also continue meeting with North Carolina legislative leaders, the Governor and various state agencies in an effort to effect policies within the State. This work will include implementing our Medicaid eligibility program, passing the needed legislation to exempt Cherokee language teachers from needing a college degree to receive state teacher accreditation, the establishment of Tribal license plates, strengthening the Tribe’s judicial authority to allow for the prosecution of non-Indians who trespass on tribal lands and submitting legislation exempting Tribal members from paying hunting and fishing license fees within the State.
On the national level, the Eastern Band is moving forward aggressively to have the Congress enact legislation that would transfer approximately 76 acres of historically significant lands from the TVA to the Department of the Interior to be held in trust for the Eastern Band. This legislation completes the original intent of the Eastern Band and TVA to have the properties permanently transferred into trust status for the Tribe.
The Eastern Band continues to oppose efforts of the Congress to enact legislation that would recognize the Lumbees as an Indian tribe. As the Eastern Band has said since 1978, the Lumbees should go through the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) process at the Department of the Interior for consideration of federal recognition, which the Lumbees have resisted for many years. The Eastern Band’s arguments have been received well in key offices of the Congress.
The Eastern Band continues to push to have other Cherokee lands taken into trust for the Eastern Band, such as the Kituwah Mound and the Coopers Creek property adjacent to the Boundary. The Trump administration has announced that lands within and adjacent to reservation boundaries will routinely be taken into trust. But non-contiguous lands will undergo greater scrutiny. In fact, the administration is proposing new federal rules that would make it more difficult have off-reservation lands taken into trust. While this new rule would make the Catawba Tribe gaming project in Cleveland County even more difficult, it would make Eastern Band land reacquisitions more difficult as well. The Eastern Band is engaging in the federal rulemaking process to ensure that it’s voice is heard.
The Eastern Band and other tribes successfully fought off changes to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and Medicare/Medicaid that could have harmed the Cherokee Hospital and other health care, although this fight is still ongoing. On another health care priority, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee invited the Eastern Band and three other tribes, as well as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Justice, the BIA, and IHS to testify on the opioid crisis in Indian country. Vicki Bradley very ably testified on behalf of the Eastern Band. The Congress will be relying on these testimonies as it considers funding and other legislation to help tribes and others combat opioid addiction.
The Congress is speeding toward consideration of tax reform legislation. The good news is that tribes have stopped any consideration of turning to tribal revenues as source of offsetting tax cuts. The bad news is that tribal priorities endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians, the United South and Eastern Tribes, the Eastern Band, and others have not been included in the bill so far.
Our Tribe is in a great position to move our agenda forward and the new year will bring us many opportunities to improve our community. Our Tribe has been a leader in Indian Country and I will work diligently to restore that prominence.
From everyone in my office, we want to wish you all a Blessed Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!