Former Oglala Tribal Attorney General censured, reinstated

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. - A hearing to decide if the Oglala Sioux Tribe's former attorney general, Richard Erie, would be allowed to practice law in tribal court ended with both a rebuke and lifting of his suspension.

Erie's permit to practice law in tribal court was revoked in April by Chief Judge Patrick Lee because of alleged questionable billing practices.

Erie entered into a special attorney contract with the tribe on Feb. 17, 2000. On March 13, the tribal council appointed Erie attorney general. With the change in position, a revised compensation agreement was drawn up by Erie and agreed to by the tribe.

In a May 24 letter to OST Vice-President Wilbur Between Lodges, BIA Superintendent Robert Ecoffey said his agency could not approve the contract because it involved a direct conflict of interest. "Mr. Erie would have a conflict of interest in prosecuting tribal council members (public officials) because he is subject to their supervision and direction," Ecoffey wrote.

Ecoffey also pointed out problems with no limitations on fees and expenses in the contract.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that President Clinton signed into law a modification to the U.S. Code that no longer requires the BIA to approve attorney contracts for Indian tribes. Since Erie's contract pre-dated the new law, his and the tribal council contract remained null and void and the tribal council has made no move to offer Erie a new contract.

The three-judge panel voted unanimously to lift Erie's suspension, but not before issuing a formal censure over the nature of his contract with the tribe. The court found his actions "negligent and careless" with regard to varied expenses which included lodging, rental cars and gasoline and mileage.