My Turn: Central Council ignored its contract

  • Wednesday, February 3, 2016 1:04am
  • Opinion

I am an economist and planner with 30 years’ experience, and I’ve worked as a transportation planner for the Douglas Indian Association (DIA) since April 2013. I have personal, in-depth knowledge of the situation leading to the legal action taken by DIA against the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA), and have thoroughly researched what occurred on this subject before I was employed by DIA.

The Empire’s article published Jan. 25, 2016, regarding the court case between DIA and CCTHITA seems to miss the point.

CCTHITA clearly violated the covenants of the Memorandum of Agreement (contract) they had made with DIA as to the spending of DIA transportation funds held in trust. The contract clearly states that DIA’s funds will be kept in a separate, interest-bearing account; that these funds would only be spent on transportation projects that benefit DIA tribal members; and those funds would not be spent without prior approval of the DIA Tribal Council.

The contract goes on to say that all salaries, travel, training, planning and other general administrative costs of the CCTHITA transportation consortium that are not for DIA-specific projects will be paid for by CCTHITA.

No transportation projects for DIA Tribal members were developed by the CCTHITA, and that is the only thing the agreement says is the proper use of DIA’s funds. In addition, the DIA tribal council was never asked for permission to spend their funds, another requirement of the contract.

Regardless of what CCTHITA President Richard Peterson and transportation manager William Ware imagine, there was a clear agreement in place between CCTHITA and DIA that outlined the proper expenditure of DIA’s funds — and funding CCTHITA’s staff, travel, training and administrative expenses were not agreed-upon expenditures.

CCTHITA Tribal transportation managers in office prior to the current administration told DIA repeatedly that DIA’s transportation funds were still there and unspent. Mr. Ware and President Peterson’s comments that the funds were pooled and spent on general CCTHITA transportation administrative expenses reinforce the fact that the contract was violated.

The violation of the contract is why DIA went to court. Rather than address that violation claim (which certainly does have merit and could have been proven in court), CCTHITA used the Sovereign Immunity defense to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. The federal government (in this case the Federal Highway Administration’s Tribal Transportation Program, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Alaska’s Congressional Delegation) did not side with Central Council.

I have personally been in contact with FHWA and Congressional delegation representatives in the last several days to confirm this. Rather, these federal agencies decided not to get involved, even though they have a trust responsibility to the tribes.

DIA decided to spend the legal fees on this suit because there was $1 million in funds for the benefit of tribal members at stake. The only risk to CCTHITA’s treasury was that they might have to return DIA’s funds that they hold in trust. It is not theirs to keep, nor to spend without DIA’s permission. It is not theirs to spend on things other than transportation project agreed to by DIA, and directly benefitting DIA tribal members.

No one would have had to pay any legal fees had CCTHITA abided by their contract, and if CCTHITA was willing to negotiate with DIA about returning their funds, as the president was directed by CCTHITA Executive Council’s 2012 resolution (#EC/12-41, adopted Aug. 28, 2012).

So now CCTHITA walks away with $1 million of DIA transportation funds. Even the $150,000 they say remains after their unauthorized spending spree will likely not be turned over to DIA. I hope other entities take note when doing business with this organization.

It seems CCTHITA has no reason to abide by their own agreements, because it appears no legal action can be taken against them. If they use sovereign immunity against their own tribal members (many DIA members are also CCTHITA members), they will certainly do so against other entities.

• Linda Snow is a lifelong Alaskan with 30 years’ experience as an economist and planner, and has worked as a transportation planner for the Douglas Indian Association since April 2013.

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