CONCHO — A Clinton bank issued an administrative freeze on bank accounts of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma this week — prompting tribal leaders to declare a state of emergency Friday and announce that tribal assistance to the elderly, poor, children and medically needy could be drastically cut.
Tribal employees will be trimmed to a 32-hour workweek starting next week, said Lisa Liebl, a tribal spokeswoman. The tribe has several hundred employees, she said.
The tribes' Lucky Star casinos at Concho, Clinton, Canton, Watonga and Hammon are expected to continue normal operations, although that could change as tribal officials continue to evaluate the crisis, she said.
“We are presently looking at all our options and will not take our eyes off the goal of getting the funds restored and the essential governmental services provided,” disputed tribal Gov. Janice Prairie Chief-Boswell said in a prepared statement.
The First Bank and Trust Co. of Clinton took action to freeze the accounts Tuesday amid a billowing conflict over tribal leadership.
Boswell and Leslie Wandrie-Harjo have been quarreling for more than a year over which of the two is the tribes' lawful governor.
The dispute has polarized tribal members and sparked protests and fist fights.
Caught in the middle is the First Bank and Trust Co. of Clinton, which maintains the majority of the tribes' major bank accounts, said Scott Meacham, the bank's attorney.
The governor of the tribes is listed as the authorized signatory on tribal accounts, Meacham said. Since Boswell and Harjo each claim to be governor, the bank finds itself in a quandary over whose signature it should recognize as legitimate in authorizing withdrawals or transfers of funds, he said.
The bank has asked Custer County District Judge Floyd Douglas Haught to resolve the banking issue. A hearing is set for June 8.
The specific bank accounts that were frozen were established to provide essential tribal governmental services, Liebl said.
Liebl said she didn't know the exact amount of frozen funds, but said she was told it was “millions of dollars.”
“It's definitely a jolt,” Liebl said. “These are funds used for federal programs and payrolls.”
“It's going to affect food vouchers to our elders,” she said. “We are immediately halting all travel.”
Some funds available
Liebl issued a news release Friday that contained a lengthy list of services the frozen accounts were set up to provide. The list included such things as shelter to homeless children, money to investigate child abuse and neglect, food and clothing assistance, head start education assistance, foster care programs, firefighter services and emergency medical assistance.
Freezing the tribes' bank accounts will not totally block tribal leaders' access to funds, since they have some smaller accounts in other banks and continue to receive cash flow from casinos, Meacham said.
“If they are motivated to pay employees, they have access to money to pay employees,” he said.
Still, Meacham said banking officials know that freezing accounts could create hardships.
“It's certainly not something the bank took lightly,” Meacham said. “It was done only as a last resort.”
Meacham said the bank tried to come up with creative ways to keep the accounts open, including negotiating with Boswell and Harjo to try to work out an arrangement where both signatures would be required on checks until the leadership dispute is resolved.
That effort failed because of the bitterness of the dispute, he said. Banking officials eventually decided they had to take action, he said.
Strange as it now seems, Boswell and Harjo ran on the same ticket and took office in January 2010, with Boswell serving as governor and Harjo as lieutenant governor.
They soon parted ways, however, with Boswell suspending Harjo for insubordination and Harjo turning to the tribal legislature and courts for assistance in ousting Boswell.
The dispute has escalated, with each setting up competing administrations. Boswell continues to operate out of the tribal headquarters in Concho, while Harjo and her allies have set up an office in El Reno. Each side recognizes different tribal court judges, who have issued conflicting rulings.
Harjo and Boswell factions issued competing news releases Thursday and Friday — each blaming the other for the current crisis.
“Ms. Harjo's continuous, greedy quest for control and power has certainly gone too far this time, jeopardizing essential governmental services to both Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal members and nonmembers alike,” states the news release by Boswell's faction.
Harjo responded: “If Boswell upheld the Cheyenne and Arapaho Constitution with an honest and transparent government, there would be absolutely no reason for the bank to immediately ‘administratively' freeze our accounts.”
The tribe claims 12,185 enrolled tribal members, 8,664 of whom live in Oklahoma, according to Wikipedia.
We are presently looking at all our options and will not take our eyes off the goal of getting the funds restored and the essential governmental services provided.”
Janice Prairie Chief-Boswell