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Former Shinnecock Leaders Ask BIA to Reject New Council, Mediate Dispute

A group of former Shinnecock Indian Nation elected leaders has asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs not to acknowledge a new tribal council, which they said was elected on the basis of an illegally enacted Constitution. The former leaders also seek the agency’s help in finding a solution for the Nation’s ongoing leadership dispute.

“We are writing… because we are deeply concerned about the legitimacy of our tribe’s governance,” former trustees Lance Gumbs and Cordell Wright, along with former council members Kenneth Coard, Nishwe O. Williams, Lauryn Randall, Maurice Williams, and Terrell Terry wrote to BIA Regional Director Franklin Keel. The letter details for the second time the process leading up to and beyond what the group said is “an illegal vote to enact a Constitution” that took place on February 26, 2013.

Gumbs and Wright first wrote to Keel on the subject in March 2013 while they were still duly elected members of the traditional three-member board of trustees, notifying the regional director about “the ramifications of this illegal vote and its import for the future governance of the Nation.” The vote to enact the Constitution took place in the midst of a bitter leadership dispute, the former leaders told Keel, which was a year old by the spring of 2013. The dispute centered on Michael Malik, a casino developer who at the time was financing the tribe’s efforts to establish a gaming facility. A faction of Malik supporters made an unsuccessful attempt in 2012 to oust Gumbs and Wright from office, making dozens of allegations of misconduct against them. The two men denied the allegations, which were investigated by a committee of former trustees and found to be baseless.

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Gumbs and Wright had refused to be ousted, but Randy King, the third trustee at the time, appointed “interim trustees” at the end of 2012 – even though Keel continued to recognize Gumbs, Wright and King as the legitimate government.

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In the April 9 letter to Keel, the former Shinnecock elected officials said it was illegal for one elected trustee to appoint “interim trustees,” unlawful for them to call for a vote on what would be the Nation’s first Constitution, and “a direct violation of tribal law” for the constitutional vote to take place without the permission of a quorum of the Nation’s leaders recognized by the federal government.

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After the constitutional vote took place, 150 eligible voting members signed petition declaring that the vote was invalid and nonbinding, the former leaders wrote, including a copy of the petition as an exhibit with their letter. Gumbs, Wright and King were replaced in the early April 2013 elections by a new Board of Trustees, which is still in place, consisting of Daniel S. Collins Sr., Taobi Silva and Bradden Smith. No action was taken on the petition.

The former leaders told Keel that, In addition to the “legal deficiencies” concerning the interim trustees, the majority of eligible voters did not vote in favor of the Constitution “as required by the Constitution itself” [emphasis in the letter]. The tribe has 383 eligible voters which would have required 192 votes for a majority. The vote tally was 112 for, 59 against, and three abstentions for a total of 174 votes – less than the required majority. “As a result, the events that occurred after this vote, which are conditioned upon the legitimacy of the Constitution’s enactment, must be called into question,” they wrote. They cite as an example a resolution the trustees passed in July 2013 changing the requirement to ratify a constitutional vote from “a majority vote of those eligible voters of the General Council” [the tribal membership] to “a majority of participating eligible voters.”  Even if the Constitution had been legally ratified, it cannot be amended by the passage of a Tribal Resolution by the Board of Trustees, the former leaders said.

Additionally, the 2013 Board of Trustees authorized a December 10, 2013 election for a new seven-member Council of Trustees that would replace the traditional three-member Board of Trustees as the tribe’s governing body, according to the Constitution. But their action again violated the terms of the Constitution itself, which requires the first election of the Council of Trustees to be elected within 90 days after the Constitution is ratified.

ICTMN asked the 2013 Board of Trustees for comments on the allegations of an illegal constitutional vote, on the petition with 150 signatures and whether they would be willing to participate in mediation. The trustees responded in a statement that they were “confident that all processes and protocols pertaining to the constitution vote and 2013 election were in alignment with all the guidelines set forth in the Shinnecock Indian Nation Election Ordinance and Constitution.” They said the Constitution “affords all tribal citizens the right to file grievances, propose amendments, or go through the repeal process.”

The statement is “all fluff,” Gumbs said to ICTMN. “Everything they said is about what’s in the Constitution – but what’s in the Constitution is irrelevant if the Constitution didn’t pass! They can’t justify that the Constitution actually passed so they talk around it. I’ve had seven lawyers across the country that have looked at it. I said to [the trustees], ‘You just bring me one lawyer that says it passed’ – and they can’t do it, because it did not pass according to its own wording.  That’s the cornerstone of this whole issue.”

The former leaders suggested that the BIA’s mediation may help to reinstall the tribe’s traditional form of government or to conduct a “valid, transparent and legally accountable” vote on a Constitution. “We are requesting your assistance in helping us find a solution that will bring stability, the rule of law and peace back to our community,” they wrote.

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