2007 to 2010
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The factory doors have since closed at the Indian Township site for Creative Apparel Associates, a Passamaquoddy venture that once made chemical-protection suits for the military. A lack of transparency clouded many of the tribe’s business enterprises. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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ecause the Passamaquoddy lack a tribal constitution, an independent judiciary and clear delineations between what matters can be appealed to state or federal authorities, tribal members have few tools with which to hold their senior officials accountable.

Members of the tribe – including most tribal councilors – do not have the right to see their own government’s budget; it’s treated as a “need to know” secret. Nor are they guaranteed access to even the official minutes of the reservation and Joint Tribal Council’s meetings. Except under rare conditions, the state’s public records laws don’t apply here, and nontribal members – be they journalists, attorneys or reservation residents – have no right to attend or cover public meetings.

Major decisions involving the Passamaquoddy people’s shared assets – land purchases, the creation of companies or the disbursement of land leases – can and often are made outside the public eye, fostering suspicion and distrust.

In one of the poorest communities in the state, senior officials often draw comfortable salaries. At Indian Township, the reservation budget shows, the governor’s base salary in 2010 was $102,500, significantly more than the current salary of the governor of Maine ($70,000) or the governor of Pleasant Point (reportedly in the low $60,000s). The median household income in Washington County is $36,486.

Many of these problems had emerged during Bobby Newell’s administration. By numerous accounts, all of them continued under the man who was elected to the governor’s post in 2006, Billy Nicholas.

The lease or sale of tribal land to outsiders is an extremely emotive issue for the Passamaquoddy, whose civil rights and land claims struggles of the 1960s and ’70s focused on the improper purchase or seizure of tribal lands by whites. Though the tribe doesn’t have a unifying constitution, both individual reservation constitutions forbid the lease of tribal land to nonmembers without a referendum (in the case of Indian Township’s constitution) or public hearing (in Pleasant Point’s).

But shortly after Nicholas was elected governor, the tribal forestry department overstepped its authority, granting a lease of a prime camp lot on a coveted beach on tribal trust land at Junior Stream near Springfield to one of the new governor’s friends, his soon-to-be business partner Brian Souers. In exchange, Souers, a non-Indian, upgraded the road to the area. Souers also set up a camp and boathouse on the prime plot, part of a site designated a public campground for the tribe.

Nicholas built a camp on the next lot. Indian Township Police Chief Alex Nicholas, his brother, built another a few hundred yards away. Although few knew it at the time, state corporate filings show that Billy, in the following summer, also became a silent partner in Souers’ new logging firm, BWB LLC, a venture that included Tribal Councilor Wade Lola. (The firm’s initials stood for “Brian-Wade-Billy.”)

Adding to the controversy, tribal member Kani Malsom had applied for a lease for the very lot Souers had been leased back in 2004, but Malsom said his application kept getting lost – five times altogether, he later said. He was flabbergasted when the forestry department instead claimed the lot on Souers’ behalf.

“Those guys swindled it off me so they could have it for themselves, for their little rat’s nest,” Malsom later said in a videotaped interview. “They just pushed me out of the way so they could take it.”

In 2009, Tribal Councilor Ed Bassett of Pleasant Point got wind of the situation. Bassett, tall and fearless, had spearheaded the effort to pass a tribewide constitution in the 1990s. A passionate advocate for accountability and adherence to Passamaquoddy laws and ordinances, he would irritate some of his fellow members of the Joint Tribal Council by pointing out when their actions violated tribal law, often quoting from the source documents.

But when something complicated and untoward happened, Bassett would get out his video camera and create an exhaustive documentary on the issue. In the absence of a tribal free press, Bassett would interview sources himself, find and display documents and contracts, and go into the field to collect on-the-ground video to establish the facts.

In the fall of 2009, Bassett gave members of the tribal council copies of his 90-minute video, which featured two on-site visits to the Junior Stream campsite, a detailed interview with Malsom, and a powerful case for tribal law having been violated. (Someone later posted excerpts on the Internet). The Joint Tribal Council revisited the issue and affirmed that Souers had no right to a camp lot.

“Billy was not happy with me,” Bassett says. “He even filed a claim for ‘harassment’ in tribal court, but nothing happened with that.”

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“Regardless of where we turn, there’s a lack of transparency,” says Mary Creighton, a Passamaquoddy tribal elder and a member of the Joint Tribal Council from Pleasant Point. “We’re all Passamaquoddy, and the liabilities their (Indian Township) businesses might create could affect us too.” Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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meanwhile, Nicholas and his allies oversaw the creation of a series of tribal joint-venture businesses, often putting themselves on the boards that controlled them. Each had the potential to help the tribe economically, but have proven divisive because they were created behind closed doors by a soon-to-be-familiar cast of characters, tribally owned entities about which few in the tribe could gain much information.

In 2009 they set up BlackBear Communications, a joint venture with Florida lobbyist Jonathan Stember, his business partner, Javier Garcia, and Washington, D.C., public relations consultant Gerry Gunster. According to its website, BlackBear is a communications firm “committed to furthering the nation-to-nation relationship between Indian tribes, the United States government and private enterprise.”

Federal disclosures show BlackBear received $40,000 during the runup to the 2010 Afghanistan presidential election to promote candidate Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s principal rival, in the American media. According to the firm’s 2010 state filing, Billy Nicholas is its registered agent and sits on its management board, as does his brother Leslie Nicholas, current tribal Gov. Joseph Socobasin and Indian Township Councilor Elizabeth Neptune.

In August 2010, the tribe formed Tomah Water, a joint venture to extract and bottle water from tribal land. According to corporate filings, the tribe’s partner is HTwoO LLC, a shell company managed and partly owned by Michael Duguay, brother of Edward Duguay, Indian Township’s lobbyist and the director of Tribal Economic Development, who also advised officials on the project. The other partners in HTwoO were a pair of Florida-based LLCs, one of which was set up by Thomas R. Rummel Jr., CEO of a failed Florida bank, who is facing a $6.3 million lawsuit from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In 2011, the board of Tomah Water included two sitting council members, Elizabeth Neptune and Matt Dana.

Billy Nicholas and Gov. Socobasin also joined the three-member managing board of Creative Apparel Associates, a joint venture with Belfast clothing makers George and Sharon Rybarczyk, and remain there today. At its height a decade ago, Creative Apparel employed nearly 400 at six factories across Maine, including Indian Township, and produced chemical-protection suits for the U.S. military. (Its operations were mothballed in 2012 when the government contract expired.)

By May 2010, purchase orders obtained by the Press Herald show, Indian Township’s government was buying thousands of dollars of wood pellets from Snap LLC, a reservation-based company managed by the governor’s brother, council member Leslie Nicholas. The company – which other tribal sources say manufactures the pellets – does not appear to have a corporate registration in Maine, so its full management structure is unclear. In an open letter to the community written in early 2012, Leslie Nicholas indicated that Snap and Creative Apparel Associates shared the same board membership.

Critics question how much income the tribal officials earn from these board memberships, which were never ratified by the Joint Tribal Council. In the case of Creative Apparel, tribal members told reporters in 2006 that former board member Bobby Newell had been paid $500 a week, while Newell himself said his stipend was only $100 a month. Three former council members told the Press Herald separately they understand that Creative Apparel has paid between $1,000 and $1,300 a month to each board member.

“Regardless of where we turn, there’s a lack of transparency,” says Pleasant Point Councilor Mary Creighton, who argues for increased openness, particularly since investment failures by one reservation affect the credit ratings of both. “We’re all Passamaquoddy, and the liabilities their businesses might create could affect us too.”

Billy Nicholas declined to be interviewed for this series.

The Press Herald interviewed Socobasin in early April, but denied subsequent interview requests seeking his comment on the corporate transparency issues and more recent developments at Indian Township.

Billy Nicholas also took heat for almost single-handedly derailing a 2007 legislative effort to open the St. Croix River to alewives, a small spawning fish that had been blocked by law from passing the dams at the entrance to the river at the insistence of smallmouth bass guides. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the fish posed no danger to the non-native bass and would enhance the ecosystem – and the support of the Pleasant Point and Canadian governments – Nicholas persuaded legislators to back off.

“In military parlance, it’s called a ‘command performance,'” Paul Bisulca, the chairman of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, told the Press Herald in 2012. “He went into that hearing and without any doubt represented the Passamaquoddy tribe completely. How Billy was able to manipulate those people is beyond me, but there are some who can do it.”

Nicholas did not, however, represent the tribe as a whole and, in fact, was contradicting the official position of Pleasant Point’s tribal council. As word got around – in part via another detailed documentary video by outspoken Pleasant Point Councilor Ed Bassett – Nicholas’ political position began to weaken.

His logging crews, however, were having banner days in the tribe’s woods.

This story was updated at 5 p.m. on July 28 to reflect that tribal councilor Wade Lola did not own a camp at Junior Stream.

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

[email protected]

 

Coming tomorrow:

Wresting control of a key tribal resource