1993 to 2005
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A pinhole camera captures a dog chained to a trailer on Passamaquoddy tribal land recently. For many people on the reservations, the way that leaders managed the tribe’s newfound wealth after the land claims settlement of 1980 left a legacy of disenchantment. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

For the Passamaquoddy, the primary legacy of the historic 1980 land claims settlement was their purchase of more than 100,000 acres of forestlands.

The tribe bought the land, including large tracts near Jackman in western Maine and another in eastern Penobscot County, from paper companies. Like other tribal trust land, the forests and the trees cut from them belong to the tribal members collectively and, in theory, should be a source of considerable – and renewable – income for them.

Indeed, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs is charged with overseeing the exploitation of the forests to ensure this important shared resource isn’t stolen or squandered. In theory, the bureau can demand changes and shut down forestry activities if things go awry.

In early January 1993, the bureau did exactly that, suspending all timber sales because of inadequate oversight, recordkeeping and conflicts of interest.

Days later, D. Gordon Mott, who months before had been rehired to help manage forestry operations, wrote Indian Township Gov. Bobby Newell a detailed memo outlining critical shortcomings, all of them stemming from potential conflicts of interest, inadequate checks and balances, and a lack of political independence for forestry managers. If decision makers had close connections with particular loggers, he wrote, the forests would be the worse for the mischief that would ensue.

“It is my view that serious problems can develop if administration of a program that is responsible for an asset like the forest that is of vital interest to both communities and all tribal members is placed in the hands of the few,” Mott wrote. “The blueberry harvest cannot be exceeded, but the exploitation and degradation of the past decade in the forest can continue because it is not an annual crop. In the end its value will be lost.”

Tribal authorities were allowing loggers to run amok in their people’s forest. “What had happened was that the tribal loggers had grown in numbers and … were being accommodated regularly and more than sufficiently,” Mott recalls today. “They were accommodated to an extent that looked like it was beyond the capacity of the resource to sustain them for the long term.”

But the solution negotiated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs sidestepped many of these issues. Oversight of the tribe’s forestry sector was transferred from the governor of Indian Township to the Joint Tribal Council, where Newell, his sister and allied councilors were members.

“The BIA was trying to promote tribal independence and tribal assumption of authority,” Mott notes. “These things conspired so that all the actors were working in their individual interest and not in the interest of the resource as a whole.”

Logging resumed, but the problems would only grow.

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The sun sets over “The Strip” at Indian Township. Years after the 1980 land claims settlement, poverty and hard times persist among the Passamaquoddy.  Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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y February 1993 – not even a month after weathering a crisis over mismanagement of forests – Newell’s administration was in jeopardy yet again.

Newell, who had been forced out of his previous governorship at Pleasant Point by a citizens’ petition and had blocked efforts to ratify a constitution that would have limited his powers, faced a new petition drive.

This time, tribal members were calling for an investigation into the legality of his administration’s financial transactions, and a suspension of his administrative authority. The governor, they feared, was mismanaging the reservation’s money.

He agreed to relinquish many of his powers, while the reservation’s governing council demanded a list of all expenditures over the previous five months and a copy of the most recent audit. Newell announced that he might not run for a third term, and was considering going to law school and becoming a judge.

Bizarrely, however, Newell was appointed interim administrator, essentially standing in for himself. Tensions on the reservation reached a boiling point.

In early March, several tribal members seized control of the Indian Township government headquarters after a meeting of the Joint Tribal Council, protesting Newell’s continued presence. Former Gov. John Stevens – Newell’s longtime rival – and four other councilors joined them. Late at night, Newell came inside and met with the group, agreeing to schedule and abide by a March 11 recall referendum vote.

Newell lost, and Stevens became governor. His administration claimed to have inherited $3 million in debt. Asked by a reporter whether Indian Township was broke, just a decade after the land claims money had been transferred, Stevens responded: “Badly bent.”

Today Newell defends his second stint as tribal governor, which fulfilled campaign promises to put people to work by hiring tribal members to government positions and making investments in businesses on the reservation, rather than in Rockland or Thomaston.

While governor, Newell brought several small manufacturing operations to the reservation, and oversaw the construction of a $1 million recreation center with a bowling alley and Olympic-size swimming pool. None of the projects would last. “I created nine entities and they couldn’t keep them up, so one by one they got set aside,” he says today. “I saw them fill the pool with gravel, because they said it was too expensive to keep up.”

At both reservations, tribal government entered an era of instability.

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Tom Tureen in 1990.  Press Herald file photo by Doug Jones

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n taking office, Stevens promised to push through a tribe-wide constitution. Instead, he became tangled in a federal investigation involving allegations of sexual harassment made by female tribal employees. “They wanted me to be convicted to have a felony as a sex offender so I wouldn’t be able to run (for public office),” Stevens recalls. “They had this long list of names, and the women that were on there, not one of them said, ‘John did rape me.'”

Stevens was cleared of the charges but lost the 1998 election by a three-vote margin to his nephew, Richard Stevens, and would never again be governor. A year later, Richard Stevens faced a recall petition of his own over allegations of favoritism in promotions and layoffs. The petition was thrown out on a technicality – some of the signatories had failed to fill in the date. Three of the activists behind the petition took over Indian Township headquarters a few weeks later but were arrested within hours.

Nor were things smooth at Pleasant Point. In April 1995, 20 young protesters seized that reservation’s new tribal office building, which had been completed by appropriating $900,000 previously earmarked to construct a youth center. A 72-hour standoff ensued, with police from both reservations, the Penobscot Nation, Eastport and the county sheriff’s office surrounding the building. The governor, Clive Dore, survived two petitions to remove him from office and a recall vote.

His underlying problem, supporters said at the time, was that many in the tribe were unable to face the fact that much of their money had been spent and they were now living beyond their means.

“When I came (in as governor) in 1991, everyone was hollering, ‘Where is our money?'” Dore told reporters in 1995. “During that period, a lot of faith in government was lost, and I am still dealing with that today.

The tribe had spent most of its liquid capital in the decade following the 1980 land claims settlement. The bulk of the tribe’s settlement – $32.5 million – was reserved for land acquisition, and most had been spent for that purpose. The $12.5 million trust fund remained just that, with the interest paid out to tribal members each year.

The $32 million profit from the windfall sale of the Dragon Cement plant had also been spent, Dore said, with $19 million being distributed over several years to the tribe’s 3,000 members and $13 million expended on tribal government expenses.

“We’ve taken millions from the principal to keep people happy,” by keeping annual payments to members at an artificially inflated $2,000 per person, tribal councilor Ralph Dana observed in the early 1990s. “We’ve created a monster.”

Dore said he had been forced to appropriate the youth center money to complete the Pleasant Point headquarters building because the tribe could not get a construction loan due to credit problems originating at Indian Township.

Tribal attorney Tom Tureen, who negotiated the land claims settlement and guided many of the tribe’s subsequent investments, moved on in 1992. “After we ran out of money,” current tribal councilor Ed Bassett Jr. notes wryly.

Dore resigned in March 1996 and accepted a compensation package, including vacation pay. Lt. Gov. Rick Doyle was named to replace him. But in April, Dore had second thoughts. He told the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs – through which all federal money passes to the tribe – that he was actually still governor because he had never put his resignation in writing. Absent a constitution, the tribe had to wait three months for BIA to make the official ruling that Doyle was now governor.

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Ira Gilbert, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, cleans dishes after dinner in the trailer he lives in, which has no running water. When he is unable to scrounge enough water to wash them, Gilbert says he often resorts to scraping the residue off plates and cups with his fingernails. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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n 2002 Bobby Newell – twice ousted as a tribal governor – handily won the Indian Township governor’s race against John Stevens. It would prove to be his last stint as governor.

The problems started immediately. The audit for fiscal year 2003 – the first of Newell’s administration – found poor financial practices at Indian Township, including delayed reporting of transactions and decentralized bookkeeping. “Tribal information can be distorted and not accurate, which includes information reported to regulatory agencies,” auditor Ronald H. Smith reported in the September 2004 report.

Although they did not make it public at the time, the tribal council learned that the tribe’s budget had been overspent by $1.6 million, and that Newell had been improperly appropriating federal substance abuse and HIV funds to make “general assistance” payments to council members. “The council voted to strip Newell of administrative authority, but backtracked when they learned they would no longer receive general assistance payments,” a federal Circuit Court judge would later write.

Newell defended the massive overspending at a May 2004 reservation council meeting: “As long as we are a federally recognized tribe and as long as there’s a federal government in place,” he told the council, “we will not run out of money.”

In February 2005, the auditor wrote Newell and the Joint Tribal Council regarding problems with the forestry program books, including lack of documentation to support expenses and payments, a failure to keep adequate records in order to bill loggers for the harvesting of tribal trees or to make an effort to collect what was owed, an inappropriate $7,000 loan to a forestry employee, and the diversion of $500,000 in federal project funds to cover the department’s ordinary overhead.

Smith, whose firm currently audits the Pleasant Point reservation’s accounts, declined to be interviewed.

By the end of March, protesters were gathered on the lawn of the tribal government building, calling for Newell’s administrative duties to be taken from him again. He closed the offices for several days, dismissing the protesters as “sidewalk bookkeepers.”

A petition calling for his ouster because of “irresponsible and reckless handling of tribal finances [and] no financial accountability” was signed by more than 130 Indian Township residents, including the reservation’s entire tribal council.

Newell stayed on the job and fired five tribal employees who had taken part in the demonstration against him. “They misbehaved and they didn’t have any respect for tribal government or its authority, and that’s why they got terminated,” Newell later said. The five launched a lawsuit in tribal court alleging a violation of their freedom of speech and seeking reinstatement and compensatory damages.

“If he has nothing to worry about, why did he fire us?” one of the five, Nakia Dana, said in a news release

It turned out Newell had plenty to worry about.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]

 

Coming tomorrow:

‘I’m the new Don Gellers’