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Report: BIA official supported unelected Micmac chief and council for two years

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – The BIA’s regional director has backed a chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians who has never been elected to office, refused to recognize the chief and tribal council who won a 2007 election, and did not insist that a promised new election take place, according to the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

The office completed an investigation of the Micmacs’ May 2007 election and turned over its report to the BIA last August “for any action deemed appropriate.” The BIA did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The report was released recently to some officials. The Freedom of Information Act Office has not yet released a requested copy of the report to Indian Country Today; ICT obtained a copy from another source.

In a synopsis of the case, the report says Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe sought an investigation in January 2008. Her request was based on allegations from Marilyn Carlton, “who was elected Chief of the Micmacs in their 2007 government election.”

Carlton had requested the investigation into the relationship between the Micmacs’ tribal attorney Doug Luckerman and the BIA’s Eastern Regional Director Franklin Keel.

“According to Carlton, through an ‘improper relationship,’ Luckerman convinced Keel that the BIA should officially recognize the decision of an ‘Elders Council’ to invalidate the Micmacs’ 2007 tribal government election results, thus allowing the 2005 tribal government to retain power,” the report says.

Carlton and the elected council members were never seated. Instead, Victoria Higgins, who was appointed by former Chief William Phillips in 2006, and the 2005 council remain in office. There is no provision in the tribe’s by laws for a chief to appoint a successor, the report says.

After numerous interviews and reviews of documents, the inspectors concluded that Keel and Luckerman “did not appear to have an inappropriate relationship” and did nothing exceeding the usual interactions between a tribal attorney and a BIA regional director.

“However, during the course of the investigation, we determined that the Elders Council that invalidated the 2007 election results – by voting to support petitions challenging the election – contained several members of the 2005 tribal government and was otherwise 100 percent conflicted,” according to the report.

Four of the eight people on the Elders Council were incumbents who had lost their bids for re-election, and two others were their relations. Of the remaining two, one publicly disliked Carlton and the other, Beatrice Watson, said she had been “summoned that night (to the Elders Council meeting) only to have tea,” and later said “her signature was obtained under false pretenses.”

The results of the May 8, 2007 election were forwarded to Keel the same day. On May 11, 2007 Election Committee Chairperson Marcella Walton wrote to Keel that she had received four petitions challenging the election, but that the petitions had been withdrawn before they could be officially recognized, so the Election Committee “voted unanimously that the May 8, 2007 elections results are valid.”

According to Higgins’ statements to investigators, over the next few days Blanche Jewell, a 2005 council member, and tribal clerk Marline Morley, the daughter of 2005 council member Mary Sanipass, contacted some elders to convene a council to review the withdrawn petitions.

Higgins said she returned from a trip and was told the Elders Council had met May 12, 2007, and voted unanimously to invalidate the election.

According to Carlton’s statements, Keel told her May 14, 2007, that the BIA would not be getting involved with the election results because it was an “internal tribal matter.” But she later learned that Luckerman had spoken to Keel twice that day and Keel told Luckerman he wouldn’t recognize any of the winners of the May 8 election.

According to the report, the next day, Luckerman directed the 2005 council to issue a press release he had drafted saying the election had been invalidated by the Elders Council.

Luckerman also sent an e-mail to Higgins with a draft letter to Keel requesting the BIA issue a formal opinion regarding the election.

On May 18, 2007, Keel responded to the “Honorable Tribal Council members” with an “opinion letter” saying the BIA would continue to recognize Chief William Phillips, who had delegated his authority to Higgins the previous year, and the incumbent tribal council that had been elected in 2005. Keel said he learned from Luckerman that the tribal council had set July 3 for a new election and requested written confirmation of that decision.

“The BIA will continue to recognize Chief William Phillips and the incumbent tribal council until the BIA is informed of the change in leadership through the election to be held on July 3, 2007. The BIA will not interfere in this process,” Keel wrote.

The July 3 election didn’t happen. Keel did nothing about it, according to the report.

In his interview with the investigators, Keel said he had no way of investigating allegations of impropriety and could only rely on the information provided by the incumbent government and their tribal attorney, saying it is the “BIA’s policy to not communicate with ‘dissident’ factions.”

Keel said he now believes the Micmacs need to hold elections as soon as possible and that Higgins has told him she is “working toward this goal.”

“It was then pointed out to Keel that it appears Higgins has very little self interest in pursuing new elections inasmuch as she has been serving as the chief for almost two years, yet she has never won a general election; she was delegated the position by former Chief William Phillips in July 2006 and retained her position when the BIA upheld the invalidation of the May 2007 election wherein she lost handedly to Carlton (by 107-81). … As of the date of this report, a new election has not yet been held; Higgins remains chief and the 2005 incumbent government remains in control of the Micmac tribal government,” the report says.

Asked by investigators why the BIA could not withdraw his opinion letter and “simply recognize the results of the May 2007 election and allow the winners to take control of the government,” Keel said the BIA would consider that option but, “it would need to be approved by the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs’ Office and the Office of the Solicitor to determine the legality of such action and its possible ramifications.”

Higgins did not return a call seeking comment.

Carlton told Indian Country Today that a petition has been filed with the tribal clerk calling for a community meeting on April 19 where tribal members will decide if they want a new election.

“We’ve been waiting for two years now for a resolution. My government feels we can bring the issue before the community, and if the community chooses to have an election we can do that in 60 to 90 days,” Carlton said. “The seated council has not been able to do that for 24 months. The BIA has coddled this government in total disregard of the tribal members and their rights. Ultimately, it’s a community decision, not a decision of the 2005 council and certainly not of the BIA and Doug Luckerman.”