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Media ousted from UKB meeting
By TEDDYE SNELL
Staff Writer – Tahlequah Daily Press
November 7, 2011
TAHLEQUAH — Reporters from the Daily Press and the Cherokee Phoenix were abruptly ousted from a regular meeting of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma Tribal Council Saturday.
When the Daily Press snapped a photo prior to the meeting convening, UKB Principal Chief George Wickliffe spun around and demanded to know who was taking the photos. The Daily Press identified itself, and Wickliffe said, “Get out! All media, get out now!”
Reporters were escorted from the room by UKB security to the lobby, where officers demanded to confiscate reporters’ cameras.
The Daily Press explained the camera did not contain film, and agreed to delete the one photo taken, but refused to turn over the camera. The reporter from the Cherokee Phoenix, Will Chavez, had not taken any photos, and indicated as such. He, too, was allowed to keep his equipment.
UKB Attorney General Ken Bellmard followed the media to the lobby, and said the reporters should have made their presence known before taking pictures.
“If you had checked in with us ahead of time, we could have addressed your questions in writing,” said Bellmard.
Bellmard indicated he was aware some tribal members may have contacted the media in advance of the meeting about “personnel issues,” which would not be discussed in open forum. He gave media his email address and cell phone number, and said all questions should be submitted in writing and would be responded to in kind.
Earlier in the week, the Daily Press received a number of phone calls and documents from concerned tribal members and employees about alleged bonuses paid out to tribal leaders, including $5,000 each to Wickliffe and Assistant Chief Charles Locust; $2,500 to Tribal Secretary Joyce Fourkiller Hawk and Treasurer Ella Mae Worley; and $2,500 to the tribe’s comptroller, accounting manager, executive director of tribal operations and planning directors in July. Tribal councilors received $1,000 each.
The bonuses were allegedly handed out in celebration of the tribe’s earning land into trust from the federal government. Tribal members said they were unsure whether the bonuses were paid from federal funds or tribal funds, and also demanded the money be returned.
Whorley supposedly gave back her bonus, as did two tribal councilors, Barry Dotson and Betty Holcomb.
Bellmard, on Saturday, said any bonuses paid were already provided for in the tribe’s budget, and again reiterated reporters should submit any and all media requests in writing.
Two tribal members indicated as rumor of the bonuses made its rounds to tribal employees, Wickliffe and Locust held a mandatory meeting with employees and casino managers, and strongly warned them against talking about the bonuses under penalty of job termination. The officials also reportedly told the employees not to discuss regular raises the officials had been taking.
Tribal employees told the Press if they spoke to the media, they would be fired, because such publicity could “undermine the good the chief has done for the tribe.”
The informal “gag order” marks a striking parallel to a situation that had reportedly been causing turmoil at the Cherokee Nation. Newly elected Principal Chief Bill John Baker recently signed an executive order allowing employees of that tribe to discuss personnel issues without fear of termination.
According to sources attending Saturday’s meeting, Wickliffe immediately moved to enter into executive session, and Councilor Barry Dotson pointed out the chief had no authority to make motions. Wickliffe demanded Dotson sit down. Another councilor made a motion to move to executive session, which was seconded. Dotson, Holcomb and Worley opposed the motion.
The agenda was also amended to exclude public comment, and was conducted entirely in executive session.
It is unclear whether the tribe, although federally recognized and pledged to follow the U.S. Constitution, is exempt from open meeting laws. This, and other queries concerning alleged bonuses, have been submitted in writing to the tribe’s attorney general.
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