The Passamaquoddy Tribe has entered a new chapter of political instability as the senior elected officials at one of its two reservations have turned on one another in a fierce power struggle.

In recent months, governance at the Pleasant Point reservation near Eastport has plunged into chaos, with its chief having been suspended from his duties only weeks after trying to suspend his vice chief, who is in charge, at least for now.

Chief Frederick Moore III, who was elected in September 2014, was stripped of his administrative powers by the reservation’s six-person tribal council Nov. 5, shortly after political rivals gained a majority in the body. He is accused of financial improprieties, charges he denies.

The reservation is now effectively led by Vice Chief Vera Francis, whom Moore had attempted to suspend Sept. 11 by his own fiat, only to be overruled 11 days later by a majority of the Tribal Council, which said the move was unconstitutional.

The power struggle pits two factions against each other, each claiming that the other is engaged in corrupt activity and an abuse of power. On social media, many members of the tribe have expressed frustration with the situation, not least because it is fomenting divisions within the tribe of 3,400, when they have hoped for greater unity.

This month, Chief Moore’s supporters tried to recall Vice Chief Francis and tribal Councilor Madonna Soctomah via petition drives, but were unable to collect enough valid signatures to send either matter to voters.

Soctomah, a former tribal representative to the Maine Legislature, told the Quoddy Tides newspaper in Eastport that Moore had paid himself $33,463 for writing the tribe’s fisheries plan, $8,771 for work on a tribal ethics policy and other expenditures she said the Tribal Council never authorized. Soctomah, who lost to Moore in the 2014 election for chief, did not respond to interview requests.

Moore told the Maine Sunday Telegram that Soctomah’s version was “completely detached from reality.” He said via a series of text messages that invoices for the contested payments were submitted before he ran for tribal chief, but went unpaid until the incoming tribal government was able to examine and audit the financial accounts it had inherited.

“All invoices were put on hold,” he said. “In fact, I didn’t collect a salary for (the) first six months” after assuming office. He claims all invoices paid were properly approved.

Soctomah “has unfortunately not come to grips with last year’s (chieftainship) election results and as a result has become completely unhinged,” the chief said.

‘THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG’

Mary Creighton – a tribal councilor arrested and ousted from office in March after she herself led an unsuccessful December 2014 recall petition against Moore and Francis – was on the council at the time in question and says Moore’s expenses were never approved by the body.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Right now I don’t even believe we have enough funds to carry the tribe through to December because of all the funds that have been taken.”

The latest political clashes followed changes in the composition of the reservation’s governing council.

In August, prosecutors dropped all charges against Creighton – who’d been accused of forging petition signatures – for lack of evidence, but not before she was ousted from office in a recall drive.

However, in a special election, Creighton was replaced by Soctomah, another critic of Moore. The chief’s opponents gained a majority in the body with the election of John Dana to fill a vacated seat in late summer. Creighton, who supports Francis in the current power struggle, said this change allowed councilors to challenge the chief.

Newell Lewey, a councilor still supportive of Moore, declined to speak with a reporter. Francis, who has assumed Moore’s administrative powers, did not respond to interview requests.

Moore said that the Tribal Council did not have the authority to suspend him, and that he had asked the Passamaquoddy tribal court to weigh in on the matter. He did not respond to questions about how the court could act on the matter, given that it has previously ruled that it has not been given the powers to review the actions of the tribal government.

A LEGAL VACUUM

In fact, Passamaquoddy elected officials have for decades governed in a legal vacuum, there being no formal means to ensure they follow tribal law, or to interpret what tribal law means when there are disagreements. Efforts to pass a tribewide constitution that would remedy this have been flummoxed by generations of tribal chiefs – or governors, as they were called until recently – and state and federal courts have ruled they have no jurisdiction in adjudicating internal tribal matters, including elections and governance procedures.

Moore had attempted to suspend Francis after a Sept. 4 incident in which she allegedly threatened a tribal police officer with termination if he insisted on charging the driver of a vehicle she was traveling in with drunken driving. She faced several misdemeanor charges stemming from the incident, including improper influence and hindering apprehension, according to the Quoddy Tides, which obtained the police report on the incident. The current disposition of the charges is unclear.

Moore himself had been facing charges in New York stemming from an April 2014 incident on Long Island in which he and several Passamaquoddy and Unkechaug tribal members were arrested and charged with illegally harvesting elvers. Moore denied the charges, saying he was acting as a consultant for the Unkechaug, who he said have a sovereign right to fish for the baby eels.

Those charges were dismissed in May, a spokesman for the Suffolk County District Court in Central Islip told the Maine Sunday Telegram. The spokesman, consulting public documents, said Moore had negotiated a plea bargain whereby he pleaded guilty to a minor trespassing offense and paid a $250 fine. It is a lesser infraction than a misdemeanor under New York law, he noted, comparing it to “spitting on a sidewalk.”