Former tribal chairman sways judge

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SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – A former Michigan tribal chairman has convinced a state circuit court judge to ban all members of his tribe from the jury pool in a civil suit filed to recover $2.66 million in severance pay the chairman paid to his top aides after losing a bid for a fifth term as the leader of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Court records show that Chairman Bernard Bouschor’s motion to disqualify tribal members and employees said that “virtually every tribe member is related to one of the participants.” That he had already been convicted by the tribe in what he stated to be a “kangaroo court completely controlled and orchestrated by tribal management. Such persons should not sit in judgment of the case.” And, that all tribal members and tribal employees have a financial interest in the outcome of the trial.

Visiting 50th Circuit Court Judge Charles Johnson confined his order to Bouschor’s last point, finding that because membership in an Indian tribe is a voluntary act. Just like stockholders in a corporate law suit, state law mandates such closely-connected people cannot sit as jurists.

His June 15 order states “that members of the plaintiff tribe have a financial interest” in the outcome of the case and they were “disqualified from serving on the jury.” The trial is set for Oct. 13, at the Chippewa County Court House in the City of Sault Ste. Marie.

Johnson’s rule means the people who elected Bouschor to office cannot sit in judgment of his actions in office. Bouschor is a current board member, winning a seat on the 12-member tribal council in 2008.

The civil action dates to June 2004, when Sault tribe officials became aware that then Chairman Bouschor used his last act in office to execute a plan to pay off seven of his key aids. Tribal officials found evidence that Bouschor conspired with key tribal managers to hide the fact that his office had cut checks to be paid if he lost the election. Bouschor’s group included some the tribe’s top management. He had hired them and they reported to him. The group of seven included the tribe’s human resource director, its chief attorneys, chief financial officer, and the tribe’s webmaster.

In January, Michigan Supreme ruled that Bouschor’s actions as an elected official did not protect him from civil liability, and that he lacked the authority to terminate the top employees and pay-off their employment contracts without board approval.