Former councilors charged with fraud
By Will Chavez
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Three of four former Tribal Councilors who are charged with misusing tribal funds appeared before the tribe's district court April 16.
In March, tribal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Mary Flute Cooksey of Flute Springs, Stephanie Wickliffe-Shepherd of Mayes County and Don Crittenden of rural Hulbert accusing them of defrauding the Cherokee Nation and filing a fraudulent claim to pay Tulsa attorney Richard Toon $10,447 in tribal funds. Toon represented the former councilors when they challenged the results of last year's tribal election.
If convicted each of the three councilors face one-year of imprisonment or a fine of up to $5,000, or both fine and imprisonment for each charge.
Former tribal councilor Harold DeMoss is charged with conspiracy to
defraud the tribe. He was chairman of the Tribal Council's executive and finance committee at the time Toon was paid and approved and presented a check request for the $10,477 transaction in July 2003.
Documents show in June 2003 Crittenden, Cooksey and Shepherd signed a legal representation contract with Toon and agreed to reimburse him for "expenses incurred." The following month the Toon Law Firm was paid using tribal funds. Title 26, Section 102(A) of the tribe's codes prohibits the use of public funds to pay an individual's attorney fees to contest a tribal election.
Crittenden did not attend the April 16 hearing. District Judge John Cripps issued a continuance for him, Cooksey and Wickliffe-Shepherd until 2 p.m., May 21. Cooksey and Wickliffe-Shepherd tried to enter a not guilty plea but were not allowed to do so by Cripps because their attorney was not present.
DeMoss pled not guilty and informed the court he would represent himself. Cripps reminded DeMoss of the charge against him and outlined the penalties he is subject to if convicted, which include one-year of imprisonment or a fine of up to $5,000, or both fine and imprisonment.
The possible penalties did not deter DeMoss from representing himself at a court date also set for 2 p.m., May 21. He also chose to have his case heard before Judge Cripps at a bench trial rather than having it heard before a jury.
"I don't believe I did anything wrong, so I don't think I need counsel," he said.
The tribe's General Counsel, Julian Fite, also filed a civil suit in district court against Crittenden, Cooksey and Shepherd in an effort to recover the $10,447.
All four of the defendants ran for re-election in May 2003 but lost. After the election, Crittenden, Cooksey and Wickliffe-Shepherd filed suit against the tribe's Election Commission alleging irregularities in the election. The three asked the tribe's Judicial Appeals Tribunal to overturn the May election citing irregularities in the election process that the tribe's Election Commission failed to address. The court ruled 2-1 that sufficient evidence wasn't presented to warrant a new election.
Wickliffe-Shepherd said the tribe's accounting documents show that each of the three councilor's expended $3,482.37 of their own legal expense fund and that they filed the election appeal petition as "a current council representative."
She said the funds were not federal dollars, but general fund monies approved and passed in the 2003 fiscal year budget. She said the funds were established by resolution on May 1997 with legislation that states "an individual council member may engage legal counsel without approval of the council or deputy chief so long as the cost of such legal fees are limited to $5,000 per council member each Cherokee Nation budget year."
She said the tribe's comptroller approved the attorney contract with Toon, and Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Smith signed the check last July.
"Council members have used funds in this manner over the last eight years," Wickliffe-Shepherd said.
Regarding the signing of the Toon contract, Chief Smith said, "We respect the separation of powers and the role of the legislative branch, so we don't generally scrutinize their requests for payment. We didn't suspect these councilors would be expending tribal funds illegally on their own campaign and election challenges."
Cooksey said she agrees with Wickliffe-Shepherd and that the councilors had the right to use the funds because the funds were not federal money, but funds set aside for each councilor to use "as they saw fit with things and issues affecting them."
In August 2003, Fite gave Cooksey, Crittenden and Wickliffe-Shepherd 10 days to make restitution to the tribe or his office would "pursue further remedies" against them. No restitution was made and tribal prosecutors continued their investigation of the alleged misuse of public funds.