PERRY — Mary Creighton decided to take on tribal officials she thought were mismanaging affairs. She found herself handcuffed in the back of a tribal police van bound for the Machias jail.
Creighton, 72, was subsequently ousted from the tribe’s governing council in a recall election after a hearing presided over by the very official she herself had been trying to recall. Someone tore down the sign of the gift store she runs from an addition to her home on the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy reservation, located between Eastport and Perry in easternmost Maine. She faces criminal charges of aggravated forgery.
“I am being treated like an outcast in this reservation,” Creighton says. “I stay in my home doing my crafts, and even my store is ostracized. The stress is overwhelming, and there is no recourse.”
Welcome to the rough and tumble world of Passamaquoddy tribal politics, where politicians operate within an elections system without judicial review, on reservations that lack a constitution, and where almost everyone is connected by blood or business, marriage or divorce. Here a candidate for chief can be bounced from the ballot days before an election, defeated governors can order subordinates to dole out a $40,000 “severance payment,” and a tribal elder with a recall petition can quickly be recalled from office.
Depending on whom you talk to, Creighton’s arrest in February and recall from office in March is either the sad fate of a misguided and overzealous reformer or a symbol of an increasingly Machiavellian political environment on the Passamaquoddy reservations, one of which was only recently released from federal sanctions for failing to submit required audits.
ELECTION HAS CONSEQUENCES
The story starts with last September’s tribal elections, in which Fred Moore III defeated the incumbent chief and other rivals, including Creighton, to become the Pleasant Point reservation’s leader on a promise to conduct a comprehensive review of government entities to root out mismanagement. Vera Francis, a tribal activist, became vice chief and recommended Moore appoint a friend of hers, Pamela Francis, to organize the initial review as interim tribal manager. (They are not related.)
This, for Creighton, was something of a red flag. Pamela Francis had been head of the tribe’s housing authority from 1988 until late 1996, when the Seattle Times reported she had given herself a low-income waterfront house and used federal rehab money to turn it into an imposing, 3,000-square-foot structure known locally as “the mansion.” The report – part of a series that won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting – prompted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate and issue a blistering report alleging a wide range of improprieties at the housing authority, including contracting services with an employee’s family members and the spending of $15,588 to relocate Pam Francis’ horse barn.
ALLEGATIONS OF FORGERY
In the wake of the report, federal officials cut the tribe off from development funds while the tribe searched and later attempted to evict Pam Francis from “the mansion,” moves that triggered a long legal struggle between Francis and the tribe. Francis was never charged with wrongdoing and in 2001 negotiated a $125,000 settlement with the tribe over her dismissal.
Moore says he also had reservations about hiring the former housing director.
“I sat back in my chair and I said, ‘No, I’m sorry, Pam, you are a cyanide tablet, and I don’t do cyanide,” Moore says, but ultimately acquiesced to Vera Francis’ request. “I told (Pam) that the minute she became a liability to me or the office or the tribe, ‘I will fire you on the spot,’ and she agreed.”
Pamela Francis could not be reached for comment, and Vice Chief Vera Francis did not respond to interview requests.
Creighton, a member of the tribal council, was upset that the reservation’s leadership would hire such a person, even on an interim basis. She says she was also concerned about Vera Francis’ opposition to distributing recent profits from the tribe’s blueberry company to tribal members, an initiative Creighton had spearheaded.
In response, Creighton helped organize a petition to recall Vera Francis. The December 2014 petition cited her role in hiring Pamela Francis and allegedly allowing her to examine confidential financial information without the permission of the tribal council. She also organized a petition to recall Chief Moore. Neither petition received enough signatures to prompt a recall election.
While the petitions were circulating, Moore says he started fielding phone calls from elderly tribal members claiming they had been tricked into signing the petition against Francis. “So I called the (tribal) police and said, ‘We’ve got an issue with petitions that may be coming up,'” he recalls. “My understanding is that the police conducted interviews based on the complaints and that’s what drove their decision to move forward.”
Creighton says that not only did she not trick anyone, but she didn’t even circulate the petitions herself. Her role was limited to submitting the signatures of five tribal members who came to her asking to sign, she says. “Then they came and arrested me in my house without even reading me my rights,” she says.
On Feb. 3, Creighton says tribal police handcuffed her for the hourlong ride to Machias, where she was charged in state court with aggravated forgery in connection with the petitions. She was released on $1,000 bail. She was to be arraigned July 27, but the court told her attorney Friday this would be delayed, probably until fall.
“These charges are groundless,” says that attorney, Steve Smith of the Augusta law firm Lipman & Katz. “My client was involved in a good government movement and she’s being punished for it.”
District Attorney Matthew Foster, whose Machias office is prosecuting the case, declined to comment.
RECALL EFFORT BACKFIRES
Shortly after returning home, Creighton learned she herself was now the target of a recall petition. On Feb. 17, the tribal clerk verified the petition had received 196 valid signatures, three more than the requisite 193, all of whom had to have voted in the September 2014 election. (Pleasant Point has a total population of 749, and 386 voted in the last election.)
A public hearing was held Feb. 25 presided over by Vice Chief Francis – the very official Creighton had been trying to recall. A recording, provided to her attorney, shows Francis did not allow Creighton to respond to the charges, beyond a simple denial. The charges claimed she had “abused her authority, … violated tribal member elder civil rights (and) … her oath of office” and “engaged in conduct unbecoming of a tribal leader.”
Creighton tried to challenge the proceedings, first in tribal court, then in state court, arguing that appropriate procedures were not followed and that numerous signatures were invalid. Both courts ruled they do not have jurisdiction over tribal election issues, with the tribal court noting that it has not been given the power to review the government’s decisions.
Nor is there any federal remedy, according to Stephen Pevar, an expert on tribal law at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Congress has not authorized federal courts to hear disputes regarding internal tribal matters,” he says, and other federal officials now avoid intervening in internal disputes in an effort to respect and foster self-government.
A spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs confirmed that the agency becomes involved in tribal election disputes only if asked to do so by the tribe.
Tribal attorney Craig Francis says there is a forum for redress: the Joint Tribal Council itself, which consists of the chiefs, vice chiefs and councilors of the tribe’s two reservations.
“You would have to get on the agenda to do that,” he said. “You do it by contacting your tribal chief.” (He is unrelated to Vera Francis and Pamela Francis.)
Creighton was recalled in a March 3 vote, 139-34, but she did succeed on one of her aims. Shortly after she organized her petition drive, Chief Moore fired Pam Francis. “She had become a liability and a distraction,” he says.
As for Creighton, Moore says she is “prone to disruptive behavior” and had gone to great lengths to undermine his and past administrations to no constructive purpose.
“It’s very harmful to the community and contrary to our efforts to bring some healing,” he says.
“This is an extremely sad case,” he adds. “I hate to see it happen.”