WARM SPRINGS — The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs has contacted the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General to investigate alleged financial mismanagement within its tribal government.
On Feb. 24, the Warm Springs’ 11-person Tribal Council passed a motion to call the inspector general to investigate a series of issues, according to council members Orvie Danzuka, Scott Moses and Carlos Smith. The tribes’ acting secretary-treasurer, Mike Collins, did not carry out that action in the timeframe designated by the motion, say the three councilors, leading Danzuka to call the Inspector General’s office on March 2.
The inspector general’s office refused to confirm an investigation was underway and no council minutes exist from the meeting. Collins, though, did confirm the tribes had reached out to the inspector general and are awaiting word on what to do next.
Interviews with Danzuka, Moses and Smith — each of whom represent one of the reservation’s three districts — as well as Jake Suppah, the tribes’ secretary-treasurer who was put on paid administrative leave in February, paint a picture of a deeply divided tribal council and tribal government nearing the brink of bankruptcy. Tribal council chairman Eugene “Austin” Greene did not respond to numerous phone calls and texts for this story, nor did other council members.
According to Suppah, Warm Springs’ secretary-treasurer since 2013, the tribes have overspent more than $100 million over the last 10 years, putting at risk senior pensions and per capita distributions — monthly payouts to tribal members from trust assets — as well as essential services such as the tribes’ courts and police force.
“Our tribe was one of the richest tribes in the ’80s and now we’re broke,” said Smith, the general manager of Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Spa. “That’s why we brought Jake back, to figure out, ‘Why are we broke? What is this issue?’”
The Warm Springs tribes are a sovereign nation, but they do accept federal money in the form of grants, giving the inspector general authority to investigate possible misuse of those funds. Also, the tribes’ treaty with the United States includes a trust responsibility provision. As part of the treaty in which the Warm Springs tribes gave up 10 million acres of land and promised not to wage war with the U.S., the federal government in return promised to provide education, health care and to protect the rights of tribal members.
Smith, Danzuka and Moses are all first-time tribal council members, elected to serve three-year terms from 2013 to 2016. The 11-person Warm Springs Tribal Council is made up of elected representatives from the three districts on the reservation — the Simnasho, Agency and Seekseekqua — as well as a chief from each district who serves for life. As the highest governing body on the reservation, the Warm Springs Tribal Council essentially has the power of a city council, county commission, state legislature and governor all rolled into one. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are recognized as a sovereign nation by the federal government and not subject to Oregon regulations, though the tribes do have to follow federal laws.
“The term ‘sovereign nation’ gets thrown around a lot, but we’re still accountable to the federal government,” Smith said. “We pay federal taxes and follow federal employment laws. We’re more like the state of Oregon than, say, the country of Canada.”
Suppah, a Warm Springs native and Madras High graduate who returned to the reservation after earning his MBA and working for a tribal casino in Arizona, said in an interview last week that he began uncovering problems almost immediately after he was hired. Bank accounts were dangerously low and transparency was an issue as the tribal council had gone seven years without posting its minutes.
“When I started, one of the first things we wanted to address as a council was, ‘Why are we in the position we’re in?’” Suppah recalled. “Why are the tribes in such a financial hardship?”
One of the initial major changes Suppah recommended was a reduction in tribal members’ monthly per capita distribution payments, from $100 to $25.
“Our bank accounts were so low that if we didn’t make a change to our per capita distributions and senior pensions, those would have run out in February of this year,” Suppah said. “We had meetings with the general public, but that’s very hard to explain. A lot of people looked at it like, ‘You guys took our money.’”
Suppah continued to investigate his tribes’ financial woes, but was relieved of his duties as secretary-treasurer on Feb. 10 and placed on paid leave in the middle of a tribal council meeting. He and Moses, who allegedly violated social media policies — say they were escorted out of tribal council by members of the Warm Springs Police Department.
Danzuka, Moses and Smith tried to reinstate Suppah on Feb. 23 to no avail, further dividing the council, according to Smith. The following day, Feb. 24, the councilors who led the vote to remove Suppah suggested calling in the inspector general to investigate Suppah, said Smith.
The three pro-Suppah councilors agreed, with the ultimate goal that the inspector general would take a broad look into all of the tribes’ finances. Danzuka made a motion for the inspector general to look into the tribes’ “issues,” Smith seconded it, and the motion passed with eight “yes” votes, according to Danzuka, Moses and Smith.
According to Danzuka, Moses and Smith, acting secretary-treasurer Collins, who took over for Suppah on Feb. 10, never followed up on the motion, which led Danzuka to make the call to Washington, D.C.
“We’re here to fix this and I think the only way to fix this is to call in the inspector general,” Smith said, explaining what he expects to be a highly controversial move on the reservation. “Right now, though, it’s a runaway train.”
The long-term effect of the tribes’ money issues could be devastating, the councilors say.
“We’d have been broke last year if Jake hadn’t cut the budget,” said Moses, who also heads Warm Springs’ housing department. “We wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you as a sovereign tribe, bottom line.”
According to Suppah and Moses, the tribes would have to sell off land and possibly allow outside governing bodies such as Jefferson County or the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take control of their courts and police force if they could not financially support them.
“I guess people don’t take that possibility seriously, but we do,” Moses added.
The pro-Suppah councilors admit going public with their frustrations could cost them their seats on tribal council, but keeping quiet was not an option.
“If we don’t do something to fix it, we’re part of the problem also,” Danzuka said. “We might not get voted back in for doing what we’re doing. I don’t have a problem with that if the problems are fixed.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7829; email@example.com .