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Judge tosses defamation case

SCHURZ, Nev. - Patty Hicks described her mood walking into a tribal courtroom in early February as nervous and uncertain. She had reason to be. At her arraignment four weeks earlier a judge rejected Hicks' motion to dismiss the libel charges against her, telling the 60-year-old great grandmother to prepare for trial. If convicted in the criminal defamation case Hicks could have been sentenced to six months in prison and fined $5,000, simply for speaking her mind.

Facing those stakes Hicks entered the Walker River Paiute courtroom on Feb. 9 ready to defend her right to question the actions of her tribal government. And roughly 45 minutes into the hearing, which included intense questioning of both sides and an attempt by prosecutor Joaquin Roces to secure more time to answer Hicks' previous motion, Judge Gene O'Brien dismissed the case.

In making his ruling, the judge sided with Hicks calling it a First Amendment issue and saying that since the e-mail was attached to a recall petition it was clearly political in nature and not an assault of character. Therefore, the judge said, it was a protected form of speech that Hicks was exercising as part of her right to participate in government.

"I'm feeling really good about it," said a relieved Hicks after the ruling. "Now people won't be afraid to speak up. It sets a precedent. Hopefully this will let other Indian people know there is freedom of expression on the reservation."

The libel complaint stemmed from an October e-mail Hicks sent to a friend while soliciting signatures for a recall petition targeting tribal council chairwoman Victoria Guzman and councilmember Marlene Begay. In it Hicks claimed tribal administrators had "wasted millions" in federal grant monies and the recall was an effort to improve economic conditions for the tribe and expose "their corruption."

Hicks continued in the lengthy note naming and criticizing the tribe's Water Resource Department Director Elveda Martinez for her handling of grant money earmarked to rebuild Weber Dam. That portion of the Oct. 3 note reads, "Every one of (Martinez's) projects have been flops ? As far as I'm concerned, she should be in prison for raping our tribe ? That's why I am personally collecting signatures to rid ourselves of these bad people."

Martinez responded by filing the criminal defamation complaint in December saying that Hicks "knowingly and with malicious intent" spread false information, ruining her reputation and exposing her to "public hatred, contempt or ridicule." Martinez did not respond to requests for comment following the judge's ruling to throw out the case.

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According to Hicks more than $13 million in grants from the federal Safety of Dams Act have been awarded to the tribe, but she claims only half the amount remains and speculates that much of it has been abused because no work has been done on the dam.

Hicks still wants a fraud audit of the tribe's books, but says federal investigators won't get involved in tribal affairs unless asked by the council. And with a majority in control that won't happen, said Hicks, who often refers to the tribal council as an "outlaw government" hiding behind it sovereignty to extort its members.

In 2002, however, the U.S. Office of Inspector General investigated claims of money mismanagement and officials found no evidence that the funds were spent incorrectly. But some tribal members say the investigation wasn't comprehensive and did not dig deep enough into the tribe's affairs.

"All the audit said was that the money was spent," said Olen McCloud, a councilman on the seven member board. "It doesn't mean it was spent correctly. This has been a question for years. I believe Patty is right and this needs to be addressed."

Hicks just recently abandoned a second recall attempt on Guzman and Begay saying the red tape surrounding the petition effort was too much to bear.

But Hicks isn't ready to give up and said she will continue to fight for an audit of the tribe's funds and hopes other members, seeing her recent court victory, will come forward and support her cause. And she said it has already happened. Word of an alleged embezzlement by a former fire department employee has surfaced and Hicks and others are pushing for an investigation.

McCloud, who has served on the board for four years and just entered his second term, said he has concerns as well and believes that if those being questioned have nothing to hide they should welcome the audit and open the books.

"If we had a leadership here that is honorable and respectable they would remove themselves. To claim defamation because you question where the money is going is wrong. It makes me sick," McCloud said. "Why not allow the audit? If everything comes up clean, let's apologize."