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Chippewa tribal board votes to censure White Earth secretary-treasurer, exonerates chairman

White Earth Secretary-Treasurer Tara Mason, left, lost a close censure vote Thursday at a special meeting of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Executive Committee in Mahnomen. Submitted photo1 / 2
White Earth Tribal Chairman Terry Tibbetts, left, was exonerated at a censure hearing held by the Tribal Executive Committee Thursday in Mahnomen. Submitted photo2 / 2

MAHNOMEN, Minn.—The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's Executive Committee on Thursday voted to censure White Earth Secretary-Treasurer Tara Mason, while exonerating White Earth Tribal Chairman Terry Tibbetts in an emotional, tension-filled hearing.

With no love lost between them, Tibbetts and Mason had filed dueling complaints, each seeking to have the other censured.

The 12-member TEC met in what was essentially a hearing at the Shooting Star Event Center in Mahnomen, before several hundred tribal members, with a few getting into a yelling and shoving match after the voting. Law officers on hand kept the tribal members from getting into a melee.

First up was Tibbetts, who was accused, among other things, of wrongfully obtaining what amounted to $63,000 in severance pay when he was a district representative voted off the Tribal Council in 2014. (He rejoined the tribal council after being elected tribal chairman in 2016).

Tibbetts was also accused of wrongfully obtaining six months worth of health insurance (he used only a month's worth before finding other employment, he said) and about $300 in mileage, which he said was due to staff error.

Tibbetts used less than 25 percent of his 2017 travel budget, returning the rest to the general fund—hardly the action of a man looking to misuse travel funds, he said.

After Tibbetts presented his defense, the Tribal Executive Committee voted 8-1 to exonerate him.

Next up was Mason, who was accused of wrongly running a non-profit micro-loan program that she funded herself and was operated out of the tribe's finance office.

There is now $45,000 in the loan pool, with about $35,000 of that out in loans. The loan pool ran into the red several times, and tribal funds were used for a short time to make up the difference until Mason put the loan pool back into the black with her own money.

Tibbetts charged that the Tribal Council had never authorized Mason to set up the micro-loan program. Mason said an official resolution was never passed, but the Tribal Council verbally supported it when she brought it up for approval in 2014. She said tribal money was never used for the micro-loan program.

Tibbetts said the loan program continued even after he asked it to be moved out of the finance office, and electronic tribal checks continued to go out with his signature on them, which amounted to forgery.

"It's getting to the point where this is getting slanderous," Mason said. "I never forged his signature, I never violated the constitution ... this is political, there's an election coming up."

After hearing Mason's defense, the TEC voted 5-4, with one voting silent (or abstaining) to censure her.

That stings for Mason, but it is essentially a slap on the wrist, since the TEC has no power to remove anyone from office. She will continue performing her duties as she has before. It could hurt her chances for re-election, however: The primary election is April 3 and the general election is June 12.

The censure vote sparked an angry backlash from Mason's supporters at the meeting. One woman grabbed an open microphone from the witness table and yelled at the TEC, then passed it on to other angry Mason supporters, who shouted that two of the TEC members—Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and Archie LaRose, Leech Lake Reservation's secretary-treasurer-- have faced criminal charges in the past and should not have been allowed to vote.

One enraged tribal member got in front of Chairman Tibbetts, pointing at him and yelling that he was a thief. In spite of being held on both sides by law enforcement, the man ended up in a pushing match with a Tibbetts supporter, a few others joined in, the crowd surged forward a bit, and tribal police and casino security guards had their hands full for a few minutes preventing a melee.

White Earth and five other reservations are under the umbrella of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and the Tribal Executive Committee is made up of the chairperson and secretary-treasurer of each of those Ojibwe bands. Tibbetts and Mason sit on the TEC together.

Now, an official MCT notice will be sent to the White Earth Reservation Business Committee (Tribal Council) for a removal or recall election hearing to be held within 30 days upon receiving the notice.

Mason does not have much to fear from the existing Tribal Council, where a vote of four of the five council members would be required to remove her from office. Politically, the tribal council is slanted 3-2 in Mason's favor.

Payments to council members

A major complaint by Mason against Tibbetts was that he received about $47,000 in deferred compensation and $16,000 in unused paid time off when he left office in 2014. She argued that as a salaried employee, he was not eligible for paid time off compensation, and that it was wrong to base the deferred compensation payment on the 6.2 percent of wages that the tribe paid into the general fund on his account.

Other tribal council members also received the payment as they left office, but regular tribal employees don't qualify for the payments, she said.

The payments were designed to compensate for current law, under which elected tribal council members are unable to contribute to or receive Social Security benefits with respect to their compensation as council members.

The federal Internal Revenue Service has consistently held that amounts paid to tribal council members are considered taxable income, but do not constitute "wages" for the purpose of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. As a result, tribal council members are required to pay income tax, but don't have the option to pay into and receive benefits from the Social Security program.

Tibbetts successfully argued at the TEC hearing that the payments were the result of a legal and above-board Tribal Council vote.

"These are allowable expenses that met existing precedent, there was no malfeasance involved," Tibbetts said.

Other former council members also benefited from the payments: Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor received about $50,000 in deferred compensation in 2016; council member Irene Auginaush received about $58,000 in deferred compensation and about $16,000 in paid time off in 2014; council member Kenneth Bevins received about $59,000 in deferred compensation in 2016; and Secretary-Treasurer Robert Durant received nearly $38,000, roughly half in deferred compensation and half in paid time off, when he left office in 2014.

Tibbetts was also accused of dereliction of duty for not addressing a grievance filed by Mason against council member Eugene "Umsy" Tibbetts.

"There are no procedures for grievances against the Tribal Council," Tibbetts said. "Tara also stated retaliation was a concern, and that the Tribal Council should be responsible," he added. The band's legal council was directed to develop, at minimum, a code of ethics for council members—something that has not yet been done, Tibbetts said. "It was acted on as far as we could take it," he said.

A very divided council

How badly split is this Tribal Council? One of Mason's beefs against Tibbetts is that he refuses to call special council meetings. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's constitution only requires regular council meetings four times a year.

With $70 million to $90 million running through the tribal finance office in any given year (about 15 to 20 percent of that general fund dollars, the rest in state, federal and philanthropic funds) the council had been meeting weekly to handle all its obligations, Mason said.

"We reconcile the money monthly, quarterly and annually and go through an audit," she said. Tibbetts said in an interview he hasn't seen a budget in several years.

Tibbetts said he put a stop to the weekly meetings because the council was micromanaging the day-to-day activities of tribal departments.

"The practice of holding a special meeting nearly every week is not in accordance with with I-65 (White Earth bylaws)," Tibbetts said. "My hope is it will allow us to focus our responsibilities to the people who have elected us to these positions."

On several occasions when he did call a special meeting, including one on the opioid crisis, after three people died of overdoses in one week, Tibbetts said that Mason and her two allies on the council did not show up, so the meeting could not be held for lack of a quorum.

Mason said the micro-loan program that she paid for out of her tribal salary was only intended to help people in times of trouble, and was run by the finance office so employees could pay it back through payroll deduction, and so that it would last after she left office. "I only did it to help," she said. "To be clear, I was not using this for political gain."

When she ended the program in December, "the chairman and I were not seeing eye to eye," Mason said. "I focused on defending departments and individual staff, because things really started to fall apart on White Earth."

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