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Controversy erupts over Cherokee inaugural contribution

WASHINGTON – After learning the Cherokee Nation donated $50,000 to President Barack Obama’s inauguration committee, several council members decided not to attend the historic event.

Some made the decision after the publication of a recent Tulsa World article, which noted the tribe’s business operations donated the maximum amount allowed under federal rules to the committee. The report indicated the councilors had signed off on the expenditure, which was what the tribe’s communications office had told the paper – but it turns out that was not true.

The report caught most members off guard, since they had not approved, nor been told, that such a large donation would be made. In ensuing days, it was revealed that former Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO Brad Carson made the contribution, with authorization from the principle chief of the tribe, Chad Smith. A recommendation for the donation came from the tribe’s Washington office.

Mike Miller, a spokesman for the tribe, told Indian Country Today that no wrongdoing was committed in this situation. He said all rules were followed, and the donation had been made from a fund designed for such purposes.

Still, Miller said decisions could have been made differently – perhaps in a way that would have less aggravated some councilors.

“Within our internal processes, we always want to communicate well with the council. In this case, we did not have as good of internal communication as we would have liked.”

Despite the miscommunications, Smith has defended the donation decision. Jan. 12, he explained his rationale to the council via videotape, while traveling.

“Years ago, we decided to have a presence in Washington. As a result, we established a D.C. office. Under the new administration, we have a new opportunity to set policy. We can’t do that if we don’t have a seat at the table.

“[The donation] would have been made regardless of the outcome of the election,” he said. “It’s considered a sponsorship, much like PR or advertising.”

Overall, tribal donations to the inaugural committee have been rare. Only two other tribes, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which donated $15,000 and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which donated $50,000, are known to have made substantial inaugural contributions.

Cherokee Nation Councilman Bill John Baker, one of the tribe’s leaders who will not be attending the inauguration, said he wished the council had been made aware of the decision.

“The contentious part of this for me is that I wasn’t given the opportunity to support it. We have a process, and I truly believe this should have come before the council.”

Baker explained that a PAC Committee was set up a few years ago after a similar situation occurred with a branch of the tribe’s businesses making donations. Since then, most political donations have gone through the committee, which consists of tribal council members.

In addition to his concerns about how the donation was made, Baker said it would be more sensible for councilors to wait to make the trek to Washington until after Obama seats more key Indian country officials.

He said the council could save money by traveling to meet with new administration leaders when the costs of hotel rooms are not so high, as has been the case during the inauguration season. Some room prices run in the multi-thousand dollar range.

Baker also worried that with the hustle and bustle of the inauguration that Obama and his team would have little time to focus directly on the tribe’s needs.

“I certainly plan on making the rounds,” Baker said. “But I will probably do it a couple of months after the inauguration when the new administration is assuming its position, and there won’t be 4 million people trying to talk to folks.

“It will be a much more profitable trip if I put it off a little bit.”

Tina Glory Jordan, another councilor who won’t be attending the inauguration, said she has a “great amount of respect for the new president,” but it is her belief that money could be better spent when tribal leaders have a guaranteed opportunity to meet one-on-one with new Obama appointments on issues important to the Cherokee Nation.

“Additionally, when the tribal chairman is voting to give less to our kids for education than we placed in our budget last fall, I do not believe the trip and donations made are justified for the return the Cherokee Nation will see.

“I believe our people need a voice in Washington – I just don’t believe this trip is the right time or way to have that voice heard.”

She said Smith must ensure that a “procedure is put in place to close this loophole in the tribe’s method of making donations.”

Glory Jordan believes Obama would understand the need for the tribe to use its money on education, housing and health needs for Cherokee people, especially in a year when the tribe’s budget is so tight.

Jodie Fishinghawk, another of the five councilors who won’t be attending the inauguration, said the $50,000 contribution was one factor that influenced her decision not to make the trip.

“Some are acting like this isn’t that big an amount of money, but to me, I equate it to 50 kids receiving a $1,000 scholarship.”

She noted that Obama’s campaign raised nearly $1 billion, so she believes there should be more than enough money to pay for the inauguration without necessitating any tribal donations.

“I don’t think $50,000 will make a whole lot of difference to him, but it will make a difference to a Cherokee child.”

Fishinghawk estimated that by not having five councilors attend the inauguration, the tribe would save about $17,000 from the original total of $67,896 if all councilors were to attend.

In an e-mail, Council Speaker Meredith Frailey said the Cherokee Nation has historically had tribal council members attend presidential inaugurations.

“Those who will be attending the Obama inauguration have the objective of ensuring that the Cherokee Nation has a voice in the new administration.

“When we consider the weak economy and the poverty level in Indian country, it is important for tribes to be heard in the development of this administration’s economic stimulus plan so we will not be ignored or forgotten.”

Miller said it may be “shortsighted” for some members to choose not to attend the event.

“This is not a time the tribe can afford to be ignored. I think it’s important at this time to be proactive and to participate in the decisions being made.”

He noted the decision for council members to attend the inauguration was made in October, before it was known who would win the presidential election.

Council members who decided to cancel the pre-planned inaugural trip subsequent to learning of the donation include Baker, Glory Jordan, Fishinghawk and Joe Crittenden. Councilman David Thornton will also not be attending the inauguration, but he decided not to attend the event before learning of the donation. Twelve council members are still scheduled to attend.

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