A Cherokee Nation residency dispute that resulted in the rejection of Julia Coates’ candidacy for Deputy Chief this month has generated additional questions of propriety in the operation and organization of the Election Commission. Included are allegations that Principal Chief Bill John Baker with partisan cronies have manipulated election districts, micromanaged staff, and mismanaged funds – not to mention doubling the costs to file for office.
Coates will not be on the ballot despite 31 specific items submitted as evidence to the court documenting her domicile in Tahlequah. She is thus punished for teaching Cherokee History part of the year at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Of the five members of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, three are major donors to Chief Bill John Baker; Justice Lynn Burris contributed $3,060 in 2011, Justice John Garett gave $2,050 and Justice Angela (and Steve) Jones stepped up for $2,000.
Of the five Election Commission members, two are appointed for four year terms by the Chief, two by the Council and one by the other four members of the Election Commission.
Coates was represented in the proceedings by former Chief Chad Smith who is running again in 2015 for the Principle Chief position.
The Nation’s newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, in its archives contains a wealth of information on multiple contortions beginning with Chief Baker’s appointment of Shawna Calico of Stilwell and Lindsay Earls to the Election Commission January 30, 2012.
The Phoenix noted, “Earls is a third-year law student at the University of Tulsa and is completing a legal internship this spring with the Nation. The Dartmouth College graduate previously worked with the Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now or ACORN as a field director for voter registration in the New Orleans area. She has been appointed to serve a four-year term.”
Earls was employed at the time by Kalyn Free who remains the “personal” legal counsel for Principal Chief Baker – a statutory conflict of interest prohibited by law. Free was Baker’s political advisor during his campaign for Chief. More recently Free told Indian Country Today during an interview in 2012, “I’m paid by Cherokee Nation, but I’m an outside contractor, an outside attorney.” Free, herself a member of the Choctaw Nation explains, “I don’t work for the Nation. The Attorney General represents Cherokee Nation. I represent Chief Baker.”
Earls also volunteered and contributed financially to Baker’s campaign.
Earls served on the Election Commission from January 30, 2012 to August 14, 2014 when an appeal of her appointment was made to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court and Earls resigned before the case was heard in open court.
“What the Cherokee people saw in that election was modern campaign tactics being applied in a tribal race, which they had never really been exposed to before. That changed the way Cherokee elections have been run in the past, using more modern campaign science being applied in tribal elections,” Free said in describing her effort for Baker to Indian Country Today.
Readers may remember that state investigators raided Acorn’s offices in New Orleans in November of 2009, taking hard drives and documents in an investigation into accusations of embezzlement and tax fraud. This followed the release of videotapes showing two people posing as a pimp and a prostitute seeking advice on tax evasion at Acorn offices. The responses given by the Acorn workers in the tapes led Congress and state governments nationwide to cut financing for the organization. The organization has since changed names, but remains active in election and community organizing efforts.
The Election Commission attorney, Harvey Chaffin, is also a political supporter of Chief Baker. Chaffin gave Baker $5,000 for the 2011 campaign according to campaign finance reports and Chaffin also served as a poll watcher during the disputed election’s recount.
Two weeks before a Council election, at Chief Baker’s urging, the Election Commission moved a district voting boundary to allow Melvina Shotpouch to run for Council office. The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court reversed that Election Commission move. (SC 13-07)
The Election Commission has also purchased voting machines. Rather than contract for equipment; the Commission voted to own the machines on December 10, 2013 with the expectations of running its own elections in 2015 according to published reports. With that equipment comes requirements for maintenance and repair, but no oversight beyond that of Election Commission staff.
So how independent is the staff of the Cherokee Nation Election Commission?
Administrator Wanda Beaver, who had been in her staff position at the Election Commission for 13 years, was fired after writing a letter to Chairman Bill Horton stating grievances.
Her letter stated in part, “The actions and behaviors of the Cherokee Nation Election Commission have created an unbearable hostile workplace environment for my staff and my fellow workers… I have worked at the Election Commission 13 years and have gone through a number of highly contested elections with great stress and terrible tensions, but none of those situations come close to the negative, accusatorial, and micro-management environment created by the Commission today. We cannot endure it anymore. I am a full-blood Cherokee speaker and the environment is one that is condescending to me and others.”
Beaver’s specific grievances included commissioners’ financial mismanagement and subsequently blaming staff, violation of Indian preference and personnel hiring practices, a commissioner’s micro-management and intimidation, lack of communication and due diligence by certain commissioners according to a January 13, 2014 Cherokee Phoenix story by Jami Custer.
In response, the Commission voted to remove Beaver as administrator, citing job abandonment. “The commission hereby resolves that the administrator of the Election Commission has voluntarily resigned by failure to report to work at the expiration of medical leave and alternatively that she be dismissed by (sic) her employment terminated by reason of job abandonment effective immediately,” Commissioner Teresa Hart told the Phoenix.
Apparently to keep “riffraff” from filing; the Election Commission increased filing fees for principal chief, deputy chief and council. As approved February 2014 principal chief candidates will pay a $2,500 fee while deputy chief candidates will pay $2,000. The previous fees to run for those offices were $750 and $500, respectively. The fee to run for council also doubled to $500 under the amendment.
In the Cherokee Phoenix coverage of the Election Commission meeting, Tribal Councilor Lee Keener objected saying, “It lends itself to some group saying ‘we’ll pay your filing fee because we have the money and we’ll back you and you can do what we want you to do.’”
Keener also questioned giving the Election Commission autonomy to the point where it no longer has to report to the council or principal chief. He said he believes the council needs to have a say in what goes on.
Is this election cycle headed to a “back to the future” moment – to the days of armed conflict in election dispute? Is this what the Cherokee Nation has come to be with what Kalyn Free calls the “modern” politics of Chief Baker?
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