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Tribal education groups spar over 2001 convention funding

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BILLINGS, Mont. - The Virginia-based National Indian Education Association is locked in a nasty legal battle with an affiliate over money NIEA allegedly still owes from its 2001 annual convention in Billings.

The Montana-Wyoming Indian Education Association, which has since split into separate groups, contends a contract signed with NIEA to organize and host the conference was breached. Officials with the affiliate filed suit against the national organization in state district court here last year, and a trial before Judge G. Todd Baugh is scheduled to begin Dec. 23.

Carol Juneau, president of the Montana affiliate, said in a telephone interview that the local group was supposed to receive 20 percent of the net profits from the conference, including a portion of membership fees collected in connection with the gathering. NIEA, represented by Browning attorney Joe McKay, disputes multiple terms of

the agreement.

According to court documents, NIEA's 2001 conference drew about 3,000 participants and more than 200 exhibitors. Great Falls attorney Steve Doherty, representing the state affiliate, wrote in the initial complaint that a memorandum of understanding drafted by NIEA in late 2000 spelled out the "rights and responsibilities" of each party in regards to the "planning, preparation and conduct" of the 32nd annual convention.

"Pursuant to the (agreement), MWIEA agreed to undertake various convention planning activities, including, but not limited to, publicizing the event, recruiting volunteers, providing office space for convention workers and volunteers, registering student convention attendees, preparing and printing convention programs, coordinating accommodations for attendees, negotiating contracts, securing local speakers, arranging the entertainment, and raising and managing funds," the complaint states. "In return for performing these tasks the MWIEA expected to and relied that it would share in the fees and profits from the convention, as set forth in the (agreement)."

According to Doherty and Juneau, the agreement established a "profit sharing plan" and formula based on how many participants came to the convention.

"The greater the number of convention attendees, the greater the total revenue and the greater the percentage of revenues to which MWIEA would be entitled," Doherty wrote.

But the affiliate argues that the national group "unilaterally and without prior notice excluded NIEA membership fees - amounting to approximately $224,320 - that MWIEA has collected during the time period leading up to and also including the convention."

Court records show the affiliate noted the omission in a letter sent to the national group early last year, but NIEA denied the request for $44,864 in allegedly-owed proceeds. Another round of letters also failed to resolve the dispute, which prompted the filing of the civil suit. A settlement agreement was drafted and signed in August 2002, but documents reveal that the process broke down, primarily over the terms of a $10,000 "seed grant" that NIEA paid out to help jumpstart convention planning.

According to documents filed by McKay, the state affiliate was the party that breached the agreement and then "acted in bad faith and in total disregard" of the settlement. McKay also submitted a counter-claim alleging that the affiliate actually owes the national group $25,527, plus attorney fees and costs.

Meanwhile, both parties have filed motions for summary judgment, meaning they want Baugh to rule in their favor without a trial. The state affiliate argued any previously proposed settlement terms are now "null and void" because of a "mutual mistake" over how the seed grant money would be dealt with.

"Even if the settlement agreement is deemed to be an accord, it was not fully executed as required by law," Doherty wrote in a recent filing. McKay, however, contends the matter has already been settled, and the case should be dismissed.

"We were very happy to host the conference and bring a lot of people to Montana," Juneau said. "This is costly to both organizations. A trial is going to be costly. We shouldn't have to be there. But we feel they should meet the terms of their agreement, and they haven't. We could be spending the money we're spending on lawyer fees on much-needed projects in Montana. The same goes for NIEA."