The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs appears to be still recognizing Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright as members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s Board of Tribal Trustees, even since their ouster from the leadership posts in an unprecedented tribal vote in October.
In a letter to the tribe dated November 19, the BIA suggested that a federal mediator be employed to resolve the dispute over whether and how the tribe could remove members of its Board of Tribal Trustees from office. The letter, from BIA regional director Franklin Keel, came nearly a month after some 200 tribal members cast ballots in a disputed vote to oust the two men from the board, along with two members of the tribe’s Gaming Authority, Phil Brown and Barre Hamp. The letter is addressed to Tribal Trustees Chairman Randy King—as well as Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright as Trustees.
According to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Press, the BIA director told the tribe that his office would make arrangements for a mediator to hear the details of the charges against the four tribal officials, and the details of the dispute over the two hastily called votes by the tribe’s members that led to the ouster of the officials.
In the letter from the BIA, the regional director acknowledges a number of questions about the Shinnecock tribal bylaws with regard to the removal of Trustees from office. He points out that during the tribe’s long and tumultuous application for federal recognition, which was finally granted in 2010, the federal agency was never presented with a written outline of governing procedures.
He requested that the tribe provide the BIA with an explanation of the procedures that led to the votes that removed the two Trustees—although he insisted that all the Trustees, presumably including Mr. Wright and Mr. Gumbs, to whom the letter was addressed, sign the response themselves.
“We are aware of some of the internal conflicts that are affecting the Nation,” the letter reads. “It appears that some of the voting members of the Nation have taken steps that they believe will address this conflict. It is also clear … that Trustees Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright do not believe the voting was legal. There is some uncertainty as to the position of Trustee Randy King, chairman, as to the voting prior to the vote. Yet … Trustee Randy King, chairman, accepted the vote … as controlling after the voting took place.”
The letter also asked that the tribe provide information about how tribal bylaws allow for tribal membership to call a referendum without the approval of the Tribal Trustees, and what tribal bylaws require as far as a quorum for the Tribal Trustees to take official action or what their authority to make official decisions is when there is not unanimous agreement.
Last week, the tribe appointed three men to the Board of Tribal Trustees—expanding the board from three to four members for the first time in the tribe’s 250-year history—although it is unclear who made the appointments or why the board was expanded from three to four.
Mr. King, who has been the chairman of the Tribal Trustees for several years by virtue of his being the top vote-getter in the annual election, did not return requests for comment.
On Wednesday morning, in response to the requests, the Tribal Trustees issued a written statement: “As we stated previously, the tribe has spoken, Trustees have been appointed, and we look forward to restoring services back to the people.”
All three of the newly appointed Trustees had served on the board in the past. Two of the men, Brad Smith and Avery Dennis Jr., also served on a committee of investigators this summer that presented the tribe with the case for removing the men from their official posts.
The report by the committee detailed work the men had been doing to arrange for the tribe’s possible acquisition of a large parcel of land in Brookhaven Town for future development. The men were criticized for not having shared with members of the tribe the details of their discussions with landowners and potential investors.
The third new Trustee, Fred Bess, was defeated in April’s tribal elections by Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright, following uproar among tribe members over the signing of a contract with a casino developer before its details had been shared with the tribe. Formerly the joint leaders of the tribe’s casino effort, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Bess have frequently been at odds in recent years over the direction of the casino effort and the tribe’s partnership with the Detroit developer who has pumped tens of millions into expediting the tribe’s push for a casino.