Shinnecock Leadership Dispute Sparks Investigation, Election Battle
Update: Indian Country Today Media Network has received reports that state police are stationed at the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s Community Center after violence erupted during the annual board of trustee’s election. Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said that one of the trustee candidates—a woman—allegedly threw coffee in the face of a member of the Election Committee. A brother and sister allegedly pushed their way into the center and tried to overturn a table where election information is processed. Another tribal member allegedly threw a pen at an Election Committee member and threatened to come back and “do a Columbine,” one of the sources said. “It’s been ugly,” the source said. There were no reports of arrests as of mid-afternoon. The all day election is taking place at the Long Island, New York tribe’s reservation until 7 p.m. Further updates will be posted as information becomes available.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation’s Election Committee is going forward with elections for the board of trustees scheduled for today, Tuesday, April 2, despite attempts by members of the Council of Elders to derail the vote.
The committee sent a notice to tribal members March 24 that “regrettably informed” them that a “Meet the Candidates” forum earlier that day had been disrupted by members of the Elders Council—“the forum was interrupted by remarks made from members of the Council of Elders who objected to the candidacy of two people”—Trustees Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright. “The persistent and aggressive behavior of a few members of the Council of Elders, one of whom sat on top of the candidate table and refused to move,” prompted the committee to shut down the meeting and contact the state police, tribal security and Trustee Chairman Randy King.
The attempt to thwart the annual election is the latest twist in a leadership dispute that has been boiling for almost a year between King, on one side, and Gumbs and Wright on the other. It comes as Gumbs and Wright have filed a request with the elected Tribal Council for an investigation into an alleged “secret deal” King and former trustees Fred Bess and Gerrod Smith made with Michael Malik, a casino developer who is financing the tribe’s efforts to establish a gaming facility. Malik is co-owner of Gateway Casino Resorts with Detroit-based entrepreneur Marian Illich, owner of the Little Caesar’s pizza chain, the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Red Wings and other businesses. Malik’s involvement in developing Indian casinos is well known in Indian country, particularly his involvement with Los Coyotes Band of Mission Indians in California.
On March 7 Gumbs and Wright, a quorum of the three-trustee board, wrote to the Tribal Council asking for an investigation, alleging that King, Bess and Smith exhibited a “willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, immoral and unethical behavior, misconduct in the affairs of the Shinnecock Nation and conduct unbecoming a tribal official.” Gumbs and Wright allege that King and Bess made a “secret deal” for a casino development at Willets Point near the New York Mets’ Citifield stadium in Queens in September 2011 with Malik and Triple M (a new company formed by Malik and Gateway Casino Resorts) without the Nation’s knowledge or approval. The letter alleges that King and Bess knowingly gave away all of the tribe’s ancillary property—hotels, restaurants and stores that could cost the tribe millions of dollars in lost revenues—in an arrangement that would in effect be “double-dipping on the part of Gateway Casino and its principals” because the secret Triple M deal was separate from the casino proposal under negotiation between the Nation and Gateway. The two trustees allege that King and Bess did not disclose that they had a deal with Triple M and Gateway when the Nation was conducting formal contract negotiations with Gateway in January 2012.
Some tribal members say Malik is driving the dispute, using divide-and-conquer tactics to split the tribe and gain an advantage in the casino proposal process. “I believe the leadership dispute was created by fear,” says Charles Randall, a tribal member. “Malik has flown groups of tribal members, including members of the Council of Elders, members of the Warrior Society and tribal members at large, at different times, to Detroit on his private jet and is on videotape in Detroit during one of these jaunts, trying to convince tribal members that namely Trustee Gumbs is the reason why the Nation does not have a casino.” Randall says it’s no coincidence that those who led the campaign to oust Gumbs and Wright are the Gaming Authority and Council of Elders members, along with former Trustee Bass, who have been on jaunts with Malik.
Beverly Jensen, the tribe’s communications spokeswoman, defends Malik. “Michael Malik has been our developer and he has stood by us, stood by this Nation and we have had people who have gone behind his back to start other deals. We don’t think that’s right. We stand by the partner that we started out with.”
The leadership dispute has divided the tribe and pitted the elected Tribal Council against the self-appointed non-governance Council of Elders, which is akin to a civic organization. King and his supporters on the Council of Elders last summer accused Gumbs and Wright of misconduct involving the planning of a casino site at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.
Last July members voted to remove Gumbs and Wright from the trustees board, along with Phil Brown and Barre Hamp, two members of the Shinnecock Gaming Authority who were also accused of misconduct, and Randall, who was doing committee work for the tribe. The tribe voted again in October to confirm the July vote, but both votes have been challenged by the two trustees, members of the Tribal Council and others who say neither vote was conducted according to the tribe’s voting laws, which require oversight and certification by the Election Committee.
Gumbs says the allegations against him and Wright were made after the two men began questioning the Gateway deal. A document titled Shinnecock Nation Former Board of Trustees/Investigative Committee Report of Findings that was attached to the agenda of a Council of Elders meeting in October accused the two trustees of dozens of violations involving misconduct, neglect of duty and corruption. An investigation last October by a committee of former trustees appointed by King found no evidence of misconduct by Gumbs or Wright.
After the October vote, King appointed three “interim trustees,” but Gumbs, Wright and their supporters say those appointments are not valid because there is no provision for such appointments in the tribe’s laws or practice. The Bureau of Indian Affairs does not recognize the removal of Gumbs and Wright or King’s appointment of the “interim trustees,” According to an Oct. 4, 2012 letter from BIA Eastern Region Director Franklin Keel, “the BIA has never withdrawn its recognition of the slate of Trustees elected in April . Those Trustees are Chairman Randy King, Trustee Gordell Wright and Trustee Lance Gumbs.”
At the end of February, as the annual April trustees elections approached, King and the “interim trustees” called a meeting where members voted 112-59 in favor of approving a Constitution that would eliminate the elected Tribal Council and shift its governance power to an expanded seven-member board of trustees. That vote has also been challenged by tribal members and members of the Tribal Council. At a tribal meeting on March 19 called by Gumbs and Wright, Tribal Council member Kenneth Coard submitted a petition to the trustees with more than 150 tribal member signatures rejecting the new constitution.
Other efforts were made to exclude Gumbs and Wright from the election today. The March tribal newsletter excluded statements and photos of the two men. “We sent statements of all eight candidates for the trustees’ board to the editor of the newsletter. I don’t know why they weren’t published. You’ll have to ask the editor,” said Susan Soto, the chairwoman of the Elections Committee. Jensen, the editor, did not respond to an email by posting time.
Going into today’s election, both Gumbs and Wright say the nation needs to heal. “That means we have to sweep all the dirt out from under the rug and understand everything that transpired so we can move forward,” Gumbs says. “Do we have a contract [with Gateway]? Do we even want a contract with him still? Do we even want to do gaming at this point after the way it’s separated our nation? There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
But there are lessons to be learned from this year of turmoil, Gumbs says. “[It’s] the same advice we were actually given by the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma. We went down to visit them and one of their tribal leaders said to us, ‘Never let the developer control your tribe,’ and we failed at that.”