By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Seven former employees of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have been given a settlement, totaling $698,000, to end a lawsuit filed in December 2015 following their termination. That settlement has led to an investigation regarding Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed’s involvement in said settlement being approved by Tribal Council.
During its regular session on Thursday, Jan. 4, Tribal Council approved Res. No. 92 (2018), submitted by Big Cove Rep. Richard French, which states in part, “Tribal Council requests an outside entity to conduct an investigation to ensure Chief Sneed complied with policies, plans, procedures, law, and regulations regarding the Blankenship and others v Lambert settlement.”
The resolution, which was approved unanimously by Tribal Council, calls for several questions to be answered including: Fiscal Management Policy: When was this policy created, updated, and amended?; the line item or items from which the settlements were paid; the dates the settlements were paid; a listing of individuals paid and check dates; and to see what prior precedent has been established in the settlement of lawsuits by the Tribe.
In April 2016, several parts of the lawsuit were dismissed in Cherokee Tribal Court and others were not. The Cherokee Supreme Court advised the parties to seek mediation.
“I’m not saying any wrongdoing was done or anything,” said Rep. French during discussion of the issue on Thursday. “It’s something to move forward with. I heard it here several times today; we can work together.”
He thought Tribal Council should have been included in the discussions regarding the settlement. “There’s 12 Council members, a Chief, and a Vice Chief here. We’re working for the people. If we’re going to work together, then we’ve got to communicate with one another. We can’t wait until we’re in a situation like we’re in again and then start wanting to talk. We’ve got to do it all the time.”
Rep. French noted the investigation is not personal towards anyone including the litigants. “I don’t have anything against any of them. I love all of them. They’re enrolled members. They’re part of this Tribe just like I am. So, I’m here to take care of them and take care of us, but also to get this off the Chief’s back where people are doubting and saying that he did something wrong. I’m looking out for him also and the Vice Chief.”
Chief Sneed commented, “At any time when there is a legal settlement, I don’t know anybody who is a party to a lawsuit who wants that to be something that is public fodder.”
He said opinions abound concerning the settlement. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but at the end of the day, when there is a lawsuit and there is a settlement that’s not something, in my opinion, that we open up to the floor for everyone to come in and have their opinion on it. There are guidelines in place. There is a policy in place. There is a line item in the budget for settlements. It’s there for a reason.”
Chief Sneed noted that there is currently nothing in the Cherokee Code of Ordinances regarding the settlement of lawsuits. “If Tribal Council would like to, moving forward, create a law that spells out a procedure to follow for settlings lawsuits, then this is the legislative body and this body can do that. But, to date, that hasn’t happened. The only thing that has happened is that Tribal Council’s approved a budget with a line item to settle lawsuits.”
He further said, “In the past, lawsuits have been settled by the Executive Branch. They’ve been settled by the Attorney General’s Office. They’ve been settled by Tribal Council. So, they’ve been settled in various ways.”
Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell said he has hated to see this issue brewing in the community. “I think it would be beneficial to those employees that were terminated and also the Court, to the Chief, to the Executive, and everybody involved if we went ahead and investigated this thing now and let it be what it is so we can get on with the work of the Tribe.”
He also addressed the need for law on the matter. “I hope that we use what comes out of this to make some sort of policy or way to deal with this that is clear to Council, clear to Executive, and clear to the public of what is happening here. They want a transparent administration. That word has been used a lot, and I think it is important that we be transparent in all that we do unless it involves minors or something that shouldn’t be public.”
Birdtown Rep. Boyd Owle echoed the need for communication between the branches of government on the issue of settlements. “We really need to get together on lawsuits like this. Executive needs to know about it, and we need to know about it. We need to be kept informed on it.”
He added, “We’ve got to treat our employees right. I don’t care who the employee is or what community they’re from or whatever, we’re all one people here.”
Vice Chairman David Wolfe also said law is needed. “We just need to come up with a process that Legislative and Executive and both sides know monthly where we are at from a legal basis with suits. I don’t even know how an investigator is going to say ‘is he right’ or that no policies were broken. How are we going to get that answer if it is silent in the Codebook?”
Michael McConnell, EBCI acting attorney general, said this could be a chance for growth. “The Code doesn’t talk about settlements. I think the best thing that comes out of this is that you make clear direction in the Tribal Code about how to deal with settlements. It’s a problem. I will have my legal opinion. Someone else will have a different legal opinion.”
Former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, who was named in the original lawsuit, said the employee terminations were handled by himself the same as they have been by previous new administrations. “That’s something that’s happened with every administration including the one that you’re currently dealing with. It’s nothing new. It happens all the time.”
His concern was the money amount in the settlement. An original settlement was filed in Tribal Court on Oct. 9, 2017 that called for the plaintiffs to split $525,000. On Nov. 6, a new settlement was filed with the amount being $698,000.
“Where did we come to from $525,000 that was negotiated in fairness with these individuals to a month later the Chief insisting that it go to $700,000? Give every one of them another $25,000 without it even going through the negotiation settlement process with all of the defendants there…there was never another settlement conference.”
Several EBCI tribal members spoke during the Thursday session including Becky Walker, Birdtown Community, who related, “Looking at the circumstances that we’re under here, we just went through an impeachment several months ago. We’re in a different time for our Tribe. The reason you’ve got people calling you and hounding you is because they’re awake and they’re involved. They want to know what’s going on.”
She continued, “There was a time when you didn’t get calls because the Council was doing what it wanted to do and the people allowed that. We’re no longer there anymore. The people are involved in what’s happening.”
Walker said more people need to turn to cultural teachings. “We are an Indigenous community. We have a history that goes back longer than 500 years and white man’s law. We are a community that operated off of consensus and the opinion of the people – that’s who we are.”
In a report to the One Feather on Dec. 15, 2017, Chief Sneed wrote, “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.”
He went on to state, “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.”