A controversial former chief of the Passamaquoddy tribe at Indian Township seeking re-election to that office has won an 11-way primary election by a wide margin after one of his main rivals was stricken from the ballot just hours before the vote.
The primary winner, Billy Nicholas, who was chief from 2006 to 2010, was a central subject in the recent 29-part Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram series, “Unsettled,” which traced the tribe’s remarkable half-century struggle for justice and self-determination.
Nicholas, who is currently chief game warden at Indian Township, won 155 of the 568 votes cast in Friday’s balloting, according to unofficial results obtained Monday by the Press Herald. He faces the second highest vote-getter, former Councilor Wade Lola, in the general election on Sept. 3. Lola received 96 votes.
Nicholas, a former tribal councilor and chief, is the owner of a logging firm that has been involved in improper logging operations on tribal forest lands. After voters tossed him out of office in 2010, he persuaded his subordinate and successor, Joseph Socobasin, to approve his receipt of a $40,436 “severance payment.”
One of Nicholas’ main rivals for the chieftainship, Allen Sockabasin, said he was informed the night before the vote that the tribal clerk had stricken his name from the ballot on account of a 1976 felony conviction. He said he received a pardon for his convictions from former Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan and, additionally, that they were overturned by the 1980 land claims settlement act. He said he intends to fight the reservation government’s action in court.
Sockabasin was elected to the tribal council twice in the late 1970s and early 1980s without his eligibility being challenged.
Tribal clerk Denise Polches, the Indian Township official who informed Sockabasin of his disqualification, was not available for comment Monday, an all-day staff training day at the tribal government office.
In an interview Sunday, Sockabasin said he wasn’t sure what conviction they were claiming barred him from office because he had received several in 1976, including an arson case he successfully appealed on jurisdictional grounds, leading to a groundbreaking ruling that helped the tribe win federal recognition and benefits. He said he had been targeted in that era by state and tribal police, who pulled him over “30 times a month.”
In July 1976, Sockabasin was found guilty of criminal trespass for an incident at a Calais restaurant and nightclub, according to an article in the Bangor Daily News, and fined $50. The report said Sockabasin, who was governor at Indian Township at the time, was accused of resisting leaving the lounge at closing time and was arrested by police, though he testified he had left when asked. This conviction appears to have been a misdemeanor, and it is unclear whether this is the case in question today.
In the absence of a tribewide Passamaquoddy constitution, there is a legal vacuum in regard to adjudicating internal tribal matters such as the conduct of elections. In another case involving the disenfranchisement of off-reservation Indians brought by Sockabasin in 1986, tribal courts ruled that in the absence of a constitution they do not have the power to review the actions of tribal officials.
Presumably, Sockabasin would have to bring his present case to federal court, as state courts do not have jurisdiction over tribal election procedures.
Joseph Socobasin, who has been chief since defeating Nicholas in 2010, is not standing for re-election.
Nicholas’ brother Leslie got the most votes Friday in a five-way primary vote for vice chief, with 99 of 338 votes cast. A logger and sitting councilor at Indian Township, he faces incumbent Clayton Socobasin in the general election. One of Nicholas’ other brothers, Indian Township Police Chief Alex Nicholas, will be on the general election ballot for tribal council, reservation residents said.
Voters at the Passamaquoddy’s other reservation, Pleasant Point, went to the polls Monday to select candidates for chief, vice chief, and council for the general election Sept. 3. Six candidates seek to challenge the incumbent chief, Clayton Cleaves, in the general election: Frederick Moore III, Madonna Soctomah, Ralph Dana, Christina Downing, Mary Creighton and Larry Robichaud. Three candidates are seeking to make the final round against incumbent vice chief Ken Poynter: Vera Francis, Rena Newell and Thomas Lewey.