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Oglala Nation court in chaos

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Oglala Lakota Tribal Court employees showed up for work
Monday, July 18 - only to find that a July 15 court order had called for
job eliminations and description changes, the removal of a would-be
administrator and locks on the court administrator's office.

On July 18 employees were sitting in the tribal office's lobby waiting for
word of their jobs when law enforcement, acting by court order, removed
former tribal president Harold Dean Salway from the office of chief
administrator. He was appointed acting court administrator when the person
who held that job, Valeria Apple, was terminated.

On July 15, Apple was given a termination notice by acting Chief Tribal
Judge Peggy Garnette Lay. Lay had been acting chief judge for two days. The
same day, Lay issued a court order that eliminated nine positions and
merged those positions, not the employees, with other offices. The job
description of the court administrator was also changed.

In her order, Lay stated her actions were an effort to restore financial
integrity to the court program and promote fiscal responsibility. An
investigation of the court budget and funding sources was also ordered. Her
order also intended to improve the overall working conditions for the court
staff and employees and to improve the delivery of court services.

Disgruntled employees asked the tribal administration for recourse on July
18, but received none. Tribal elected officials met all day in an attempt
to determine whether or not the order was legal and tried to seek methods
to resolve the situation.

Employees were angry and confused. Some, who wished to remain anonymous,
said they would quit their jobs, even though some were not affected by the
changes. Others went on administrative leave to consider their options.

Apple was reassigned as a secretary in the "A & A Department." Apple took
administrative leave, saying, "Don't ask me what [A & A Department] means."

"I suggested shutting the court down for 30 days until they get things
organized," said Cecilia Fire Thunder, Oglala Sioux president.

She said all who met to discuss the issue agreed the method used by Lay was
not proper.

Employees told Indian Country Today that chaos within the court occurred on
a daily basis and had been happening for some time, at least two years or
more, they said. Two judges, Marina Fast Horse and Lay were at the cause of
the chaos, the employees said. Neither judge was available for comment.

Apple had been fired once before, in April, for "insubordination, and
misapplication of funds," She was reinstated after a court proceeding.
Apple said she was accused of turning the employees against the judges.

It is not certain if Lay can make the changes in policy and procedures.
That is usually left up to the Policy and Procedures Committee of the
tribal council. Her order, however, has been upheld by tribal Executive
Director Lamoine Pulliam. Pulliam was contacted but did not return phone
calls.

When Apple was fired July 15, Salway informed her that he was the new
acting chief administrator. Salway took over Apple's office and new locks
were put on the door.

On July 18, Juvenile Court Judge Sid Witt issued a restraining order
against Salway and ordered that he leave the office or be forcibly removed,
jailed and fined. Salway voluntarily left, with law enforcement officers
present.

Lay's order named Salway the new acting chief court administrator, but the
position is to be advertised. The job description was changed to require
four years of college and grant writing experience. Apple said the current
job description requires two years of college and grant writing experience.
Apple has been with the tribal court for 18 years; Salway has a degree and
experience in law enforcement.

The tribal court has been the subject of much criticism over the years.
Longtime tribal Chief Judge Patrick Lee resigned in 2001. Just recently,
Judge Cheryl Valandra resigned and a juvenile judge in Kyle, was
terminated.

Apple said she had explanations and vouchers that prove she did not
mishandle any funding, of which she was accused in the judge's termination
memorandum.

One council member, Will Peters, said he is fed up with the political
interference. He said he would advocate to separate the tribal court from
legislative control. "I went to visit with the people [tribal employees]
and they are very upset and frustrated. I see the court in chaos,
factionalized because of political interference by a person or persons,"
Peters said.

"As long as this situation exists we can't have an independent judicial
[branch]. The people deserve better," he said.

Peters, not on the Judicial Committee, said he sat through most of the
meetings just to get a feel for the situation. He said after the meetings
that he wanted to meet with all the employees to hear their stories.

The Executive Committee of the tribal council turned the situation over to
Puliam. Some people were allowed to return to their jobs while the
situation is worked out; others were transferred to different programs or
departments.

As of July 19 Salway was sitting in his office as acting chief
administrator and the Executive Committee was abiding by the court order
issued by Lay. According to some employees, Puliam told them that since a
court order was issued he had to abide by its dictates.

In the meantime, no civil cases are being heard; all cases were rescheduled
by the chief judge until September, Apple said.

The legality still had not been determined by tribal counsel five days
after the issuance of the court order. Speculation, however, is that the
order is not binding. Unofficially, Lay does not have authority over any
other area but the judicial area of the court; the administrator has the
authority over employees.

In all, nine positions were eliminated in what was described as a reduction
in the work force and related cost-saving measures.

Eliminated were: adult probation officer, court bailiff, child support
collection clerk, tribal Supreme Court clerk, juvenile probation officer,
court reporter, process server, judicial law clerk/chief judges' clerk and
the position of temporary acting juvenile judge. Other offices will be
asked to assume the duties of those positions.

Another legal matter was not resolved: does the chief judge have authority
over the tribal Supreme Court? The position of Supreme Court clerk was
eliminated, and the duties will be performed by the juvenile clerk. Each
time duties were reassigned to another person, a pay increase was included.

In some instances, for example, the adult criminal court clerk in the Kyle
office - another part of the vast reservation - will be reassigned to
include the shared duties and responsibilities of adult probation officer.
The same reassignment was handed out to the civil clerk and the juvenile
clerk.

Fast Horse, who came under criticism by some employees, was elevated to
deputy chief judge with a raise in salary.

The final word on the court and the realignment may be in the hands of the
tribal council. The issue will be addressed at its next regular meeting.

Peters said he had full trust in his colleagues to do the right thing. He
planned to start advocating for a separation of powers. He said he has had
reservations about the tribal court in the past, but that given the
opportunity the court could work out all problems and provide the Oglala
Nation with the best court system possible.

"I have faith in this council. They are reasonable people and share in a
common goal," he said. As a final word from Peters, when he spoke to ICT,
he sent a message to all tribal elected officials: "When you say you
represent the people, you represent all the people, to the best of your
abilities. Not just some of the people and your own interests. I take a
firm stand on that."