CARNEGIE — Patricia Vowels will have to wait a little longer for her COVID-19 relief check from the Kiowa Tribe.
A Court of Indian Offenses (CFR) judge ruled Tuesday that any use of Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma funds, including the $19.7 million awarded to the tribe by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is to be decided by the tribe’s citizens.
While the ruling puts the money, theoretically, in the hands of the tribal members, those hurting for relief due to emergencies tied to the COVID-19 crisis continue to grasp at straws in hopes for help.
Among the roster of the over 12,000-member tribe is former Lawton resident Vowels. Living in Arlington, Texas, she said that her Social Security money isn’t enough to survive on. Especially after her granddaughters lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. She’s even had to sell her car to cover bills.
When the tribe’s Executive Branch readied its spending plan and implemented its application process for COVID-19 assistance, Vowels said she jumped through hoops aplenty to get the process rolling. She thought things were moving forward, finally. She said she was wrong.
“I still haven’t received anything from the Kiowas and now they are saying that the funds relief for COVID-19 is frozen by the Legislature,” she said. “Ain’t that something?”
Vowels said her first application submitted June 9 was lost and refiled for her. She was assured she would get her money by Friday.
“And now this,” she said.
The freezing of tribe funds follows CFR Chief Magistrate Shannon L. Edwards’ ruling Tuesday that granted the preliminary injunction that was sought by the Legislature. With the ruling, Chairman Matthew Komalty and Vice-Chair Rhonda Ahhaitty and their agents/staff are stopped from withdrawing or paying out any funds received from the CARES Act until the Kiowa Indian Council (KIC), the supreme governing body according to the tribe’s constitution, approves a budget that contains the full amount of money provided to the tribe from the Treasury Department.
The ruling is appealable with the court’s Appellate Division.
Angela Chaddlesone McCarthy, District 1 Legislator and speaker for the Legislature, said the funds will remain frozen until the KIC votes in the annual budget election slated for Aug. 22.
The Legislature filed for a temporary restraining order on June 17. They claimed the Executive Branch was violating the separation of powers mandated in the tribe’s constitution by preparing to spend the CARES Act funds without tribal council approval.
Edwards cited the tribe’s constitution that was revised and passed in 2017 for her decision’s reasoning.
“The Constitution is very clear that both the Legislature and the KIC have a role to play in establishing the annual budget of the Tribe and any modification thereto,” she wrote.
Citing that “every funding item” in a budget must have been “previously authorized by law,” Edwards said it’s the Legislative Branch’s constitutional duty to authorize and appropriate as part of its essential function.
Edwards also noted there are issues with how the Executive and Legislative branches have been informing the tribal members about what’s going on so that the KIC may assert its governmental role. With no budgetary laws enacted to implement the sections of the constitution, she said “it would seem prudent for the Legislature to develop those laws to help advise and assist it and the KIC carry out their duties.” She said the tribe’s budget process is not yet “well-defined.”
Both the Executive and Legislative branches have been suffering from issues that “are not entirely unexpected growing pains of a young government.”
“The Kiowa people adopted a governing document that requires all revenue and funds received from any and all sources to be included in a budget that is approved by the KIC,” Edwards wrote. “This can happen through the annual budget or a budget modification, but all budgeting is subject to approval by the KIC, and every line item in an approved budget must be authorized and appropriated.”
Edwards said the Executive Branch claimed the tribe will be harmed with the issuance of the injunction because of its program that had just begun to assist tribal members by making CARES Act funds available. The Legislative Branch argued the Executive program “will not provide sufficient direct financial aid” to tribal members and, instead, is distributed and directed through tribal programs.
In the end, the Chief Magistrate determined that the public interest is broader than ensuring the Executive Branch is allowed to “carry out what may be a good COVID-19 response plan,” or the Legislature’s implicated desire to pay out a majority of CARES Act funds to Kiowa members (a proposed $1,000 per person).”
“All three branches have a role to play in making and enacting budgetary policy and law and the public interest is best served when those entities agree or, at least, compromise with respect to their budget, and specifically the CARES Act funds the Tribe received to respond to the harm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she wrote. “There is no other way.”
The Constitution contacted a spokesperson for Komalty, but did not receive a response as of Wednesday evening.
The turmoil between factions of the tribe and the Executive Branch has other elements at the moment.
The legislative branch voted unanimously on June 22 to approve moving forward with an impeachment hearing for Komalty. The impeachment and the lawsuit are separate actions.
The five impeachment charges cite five allegations of failure to follow protocols of the Kiowa Constitution, including the distribution of the CARES Act funding.
Calling the allegations “an example of misrepresentation of accuracy,” Komalty has denied all of the allegations.
A recall petition seeking a hearing for the ouster of Komalty is also circulating as a “sort of backup” if the Legislature fails to remove Komalty from office, according to Chaddlesone-McCarthy. More than 1,500 names of eligible tribal voters are needed for a recall hearing to be held for the KIC to cast a vote.
In the end, the combative drama between the governmental branches is affecting tribal members like Patricia Vowels and others. As the disputed funds remain frozen until the outcome of an election or an overruling of the injunction through appeal, they will be awaiting word and hope for relief.
Written by Scott Rains: firstname.lastname@example.org.