TAHLEQUAH – There was some contentious discussion about spending during the Executive & Finance Committee meeting on March 25 as Tribal Councilor Wes Nofire called for a forensic audit of the Cherokee Nation’s use of federal coronavirus relief funds.
“This is a resolution requesting an audit and investigation of COVID-19 emergency relief funds and calling for a formal hearing by the Tribal Council,” Nofire said.
Councilor Harley Buzzard seconded the motion to introduce the measure, “just for discussion.” Legislators voted by voice against sending the resolution to the full Council, with several suggesting a forensic audit was either premature or unnecessary because the annual budget report had not yet undergone its normal auditing.
After a COVID relief funds spending report by Treasurer Tralynna Scott, Nofire voiced concerns about the use of “CARES Act” funding intended to aid the tribe. He asked how Cherokee Nation Businesses awarded bonuses, how insurance claims were handled and paid out, how “$72 million” in federal funds were or could be used, and requested a detailed list of how funds were spent.
Early in the discussion, Nofire’s “concerns” approached the level of allegation. He suggested that Scott accepted the figures as submitted by CNB, and questioned whether “this was accurate details or something they needed to do to cover their own butts on where they spent the money.” He also pointed to $4 million paid to a “Creative Filter to create – something” and possible nepotism when it contracted with a company “owned by a husband of the director of the (Cherokee Nation) film office.”
“That is not true,” Scott said.
“Then you just lied in front of the Council because I have on record that it’s factual,” Nofire said.
“Please show me your source,” Scott said.
When asked for sources of the allegations, Nofire did not produce them, stating they were constituents who had voiced their concerns to him and feared retaliation if named. He also mentioned unspecified media reports.
Scott said the financial report goes through “six layers” of assessment, including internal and external audit.
“We get audited internally, and we get audited externally,” said Councilor Mike Shambaugh, who engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with Nofire. “This is not justification unless you can prove what you are talking about it…. What you are saying is also hearsay.”
“It boggles my mind that we’re trying to find something negative in this,” said Councilor Shawn Crittenden, noting that CN had not issued layoffs and paid workers who were forced to stay home.
Scott also defended her Treasury staff, saying that through multiple internal and external audits, there had not been even “a finding” in several years. She also said that, though some of the names in the financial records must be kept from the general public, councilors are free to visit her office and pore over line-by-line spending records.
“I have a team of 100 very talented employees who keep the train arriving on time,” Scott said. “Since 2013 the Financial Resources department has undergone 107 agency audits. This is excluding the single audit and annual financial audit they do each year – during which they’ve audited over $420 million, and only found $1,459 that were unallowable expenses, or .001 percent – or put another way, we get it right 99.999 percent of the time.”
After stating that the CN faced certain federal audit because of the amount of money received, Scott said the initial audit would be complete by March 31 and that “our books will be in line.”
Crittenden, who voted against Nofire’s measure, said he viewed another audit unnecessary. “It’s been spun out on social media that if we don’t vote for this we’re against transparency, and that’s just not true.”
Councilor Joe Byrd, who also voted no, said he respected Nofire’s concerns, but those worries weren’t widespread, with only one or two councilors believing something was wrong with the books.
“We have audits coming due,” Byrd said. “We will see if it does or does not warrant an investigation (and) do our due diligence and see how this works out before we start pointing fingers.”
Councilor Keith Austin said the motion was “disingenuous,” claiming not a single constituent had asked him to support the legislation. He moved to table the measure indefinitely, but Chairwoman Janees Taylor finished the meeting by calling for the vote.