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Suquamish push for recall of two council members

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BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. - There are reports enough signatures have been gathered by Suquamish tribal members to recall two council members, including Chairman Bennie Armstrong, on the grounds of "no-confidence."

A two week investigation by Indian Country Today reveals that tribal members are upset with their council for actions taken against the Suquamish Tribal Gaming Authority and alleged coerced dismissals of several tribal employees.

Sources say Suquamish tribal law requires signatures of one-quarter of the tribe - approximately 150 - on a petition which would be submitted to the tribal council which would then set a hearing date when at least one-quarter of the tribe would have to show up. At that hearing, a simple majority of those present could vote to remove the council members from their respective posts.

So far tribal sources claim they have 170 signatures.

Though several tribal members have been willing to discuss reasons for the re-call, most chose to remain anonymous, saying they fear retaliatory measures by the council. They represent a broad cross-section of Suquamish tribal members and close insiders.

Multiple sources allege the council attempted to dismiss the gaming authority in retaliation for an investigation the authority conducted against a council member's wife for alleged involvement in a "pull-tab" gaming scam at the tribal casino.

The alleged scam supposedly involved an event in which a council member's common-law sister-in-law, a casino manager named Traci Sullivan, contacted the council member's wife when a box of game cards ran low without a winner. The council member's wife then is alleged to have bought the remainder of the box in which a winner was guaranteed.

The TGA recommended removal of Sullivan's license based on these allegations. Since it is only a regulatory agency and has no authority to investigate criminal charges, the matter was turned over to the Suquamish tribal police who found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Tribal sources say the Suquamish Chief of- Police Wayne George is a cousin of the other council member up for recall, Georgia George. They allege Wayne George was under family pressure not to fully investigate the matter.

"That's completely false," says Ron Blake, the assistant chief of police.

Blake added there was no evidence of any wrongdoing and that Chief George was under "no outside pressure" on this investigation. On the issue of family pressure, Blake points out that he is not a tribal member and says he was one of the lead investigators in the case and could say with certainty that the investigation was taken under non-partisan circumstances.

Still the sources persist in hinting that another investigative agency - such as the National Indian Gaming Commission, the state of Washington, Kitsap County and the FBI - have become involved in the matter.

Wayne George also disputes this suggestion and says the FBI declined to become involved in the case. The Portland, Ore., area National Indian Gaming Commission office say it cannot comment on the situation and will not confirm or deny that another agency, such as the FBI, has become involved.

No one has been convicted of any criminal wrongdoing in the "pull-tab" scam. The only actions resulting from the alleged incident were regulatory, not criminal.

After Sullivan's license was revoked, the tribal council decided last summer to attempt to remove the TGA members from their posts. The council alleged the gaming authority improperly followed rules and procedures and were to be dismissed for those reasons.

A confidential document obtained by Indian Country Today shows that an independent investigation revealed that charges against the authority had no merit. Furthermore, a council-appointed judge in Suquamish tribal court found actions against the authority lacked due process and issued an injunction preventing the council from dismissing TGA members.

Tribal elders have been perhaps the most vocal and fearless group opposing the tribal council. The elders have a litany of complaints against the tribal council, including lack of personal respect. They led protest marches against the council, which they say has fired too many quality tribal employees to consolidate council power.

Several elders say the council became nervous when a tribal member, Robert Gemmell, created a communications network on the reservation that suddenly put tribal members in touch with each other. He set up e-mail and established a tribal intranet where communication could be dispensed more freely.

The elders say they feel that since the Suquamish tribe meets as an entire body only once a year, for a few hours, the council has been able to shield many of its activities from the community and conducted many closed-door meetings.

Tribal members say they feel they were barred from important decisions. With the new communications system tribal members were more able to keep track of what was happening in their government and community, which sources say, made the council fearful.

As a direct result of the improved communications, the elders say Gemmell and Tribal Manager Alexis Barry were fired. Though the resignation letter signed by Barry makes it look as if her ouster was voluntary, tribal sources claim the letter was "doctored" by the council lawyer.

Neither Gemmell nor Barry would comment on this or any other matter.

"They never want anyone with any smarts," says Maureen Sather, a tribal elder who is not afraid to go on the record. "They've (the tribal council) gotten rid of several college-educated people and are giving jobs to non-qualified people who serve their interests."

Sather and other elders say the council comes from Suquamish's large, land-owning families and are wary of innovation coming to the reservation that would jeopardize their economic stranglehold on the community. Tribal sources point out that the family of Georgia George runs the fireworks stand and the local store, traditionally the biggest sources of revenue on the reservation, and parlay this to seats on the tribal council.

Georgia George was unavailable for comment because of a family medical emergency.

Chairman Bennie Armstrong says these charges are not true. He feels the petition drive for removal, and the other allegations, are the work of "political enemies" seeking seats for themselves on the Suquamish tribal council.

Armstrong says he does not get paid for his position and an independent audit revealed no financial mismanagement in tribal affairs. He says the council had been considering actions against the TGA for more than a year before the alleged pull-tab scandal and the situation has no retaliatory implications.

"If they were going to do something for a year, why didn't they do it then. Why did they wait a whole year," asks one tribal member.

Council critics will submit their petition within the next few weeks and a hearing date on the recall will then have to be set within the following month.

The Suquamish Reservation sits largely on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound and is a 20-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. They are the tribe of the fabled Chief Sealth (Seattle) whose final resting-place is on the Suquamish Reservation.