William “Billy” Nicholas, the controversial former chief of the Passamaquoddy reservation at Indian Township, has been re-elected to that position.
Nicholas won Wednesday’s general election, defeating rival Wade Lola by a vote of 201 to 179, according to unofficial returns provided to the Press Herald by tribal members. His brother, Leslie Nicholas, won the vice chief position, ousting incumbent Clayton Sockabasin – who faces drunk driving charges in Hancock County – by a similar margin.
A third brother, Indian Township police chief Alex Nicholas, won one of three contested seats on the tribal council, giving the brothers considerable influence over tribal affairs.
Billy Nicholas, who was chief from 2006 to 2010 and currently serves as the reservation’s chief game warden, was a central subject in the recent 29-part Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram series, “Unsettled,” which traced the tribe’s remarkable half-century struggle for justice and self-determination.
A former tribal councilor and chief, he is the owner of a logging firm that has been involved in improper logging operations on tribal forest lands. After voters removed him from office in 2010, he persuaded his subordinate and successor, Joseph Socobasin, to approve his receipt of a $40,436 “severance payment.”
His brother, vice chief-elect Leslie Nicholas, also holds a contract to log on tribal lands. A popular referendum to ban government officials from holding such contracts was passed by a simple majority of voters at both reservations earlier this year, but outgoing Indian Township Chief Joseph Socobasin declared it had failed for lack of a two-thirds majority.
The government at the tribe’s other reservation at Pleasant Point, near Eastport, disagreed with Chief Socobasin’s move and is refusing to sign checks or authorize other actions at the tribal forestry department until the issue is resolved. The tribe lacks a constitution, so there is no clear way to resolve the standoff, the tribe’s courts having ruled more than two decades ago that they lack the power to hold elected officials to account.
Leslie and Billy Nicholas also sit on the boards of several tribally owned businesses which operate with little public oversight.
Billy Nicholas won an 11-way primary election last week after one of his main rivals, onetime chief Allen Sockabasin, was stricken from the ballot the night before the vote on account of a 1976 felony conviction. Sockabasin – who is unrelated to Clayton Sockabasin – has said he intends to challenge the decision in federal court, as he was pardoned for his 1976 convictions and has served on the tribal council twice since then without his eligibility to hold office having been challenged.
The Passamaquoddy are legally and culturally one entity, but they have two separate reservations, each with its own council and chief. Tribewide decisions are made in joint meetings of the two sets of chiefs and councilors, who meet as the joint tribal council.
On Tuesday, voters at the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point turned out incumbent chief Clayton Cleaves in favor of Fred Moore III, a lobsterman and former tribal representative to the state Legislature, by a vote of 204 to 171.
Moore didn’t respond to an interview request this week, but in a July interview with the Press Herald he emphasized his dissatisfaction with tribal leadership, saying many elected officials suffered from the “spirit of the state Indian agent,” an often tyrannical early-to-mid-20th-century figure who decided whom among reservation Indians did and did not receive food, medical care or firewood.
It is unclear whether Moore supports passage of a tribal constitution – an effort that Cleaves has effectively blocked – or what his position is on the logging conflict of interest issue.
Moore has been the tribe’s fisheries committee coordinator and has been a leading figure in contentious negotiations with the state over the fishing of elvers, baby eels that command a high price in Asian markets. In April, he and seven others were charged in New York state with three felony counts related to the fishing and possession of elvers. The case – which centers on contested conceptions of native fishing rights – has yet to be resolved.
Twenty years ago, Moore was the subject of a front-page profile in the Bangor Daily News describing the hardships he experienced while serving as police chief on the reservation after rumors circulated that he was under federal investigation for smuggling tobacco across the nearby border with Canada.
Months later, it was revealed that Moore had been involved in an elaborate federal undercover operation against the smuggling ring, which was run by members of New York’s Mohawk tribe. But by that time, Moore had been fired as police chief and his half-completed house had been burned down by arsonists.
In 1978, Moore served six months in jail for a felony aggravated assault conviction. According to the newspaper profile, he received a pardon in 1985 from then Maine Gov. Joe Brennan, just as Allen Sockabasin says he did for the 1976 convictions for which he was stricken from this year’s primary ballot.
On Tuesday, tribal activist Vera Francis also defeated incumbent Pleasant Point vice chief Ken Poynter, 297 to 80. She has been active in tribal fishery issues and is a longtime champion of cultural rejuvenation.
The two reservations together elected a new tribal representative to the state Legislature. Matt Dana II handily won the position, with more than twice as many votes as the two others on the ballot combined.
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: