As the Freedom of Information Act controversy wound down after the council passed the FOIA in June 2014, a lingering question remains about transparency in the Cherokee Nation. Lawsuits are pending in Cherokee court against the administration for refusing to release documents that were requested in March of 2013.
Some Cherokees accuse the administration of hiding information and say that these lawsuits partially led to the proposed radical FOIA changes introduced by the council in April. Other Cherokees claim these lawsuits are frivolous political attacks on the Cherokee Nation.
From two Phoenix articles (listed in the sidebar), the story behind these lawsuits appears to unfold as follows:
In March of 2013 Councilor Julia Coates requested the following documents:
- Financial records regarding Cherokee Nation Businesses complementary gifts at its casinos, hotels, eateries, bars and events given to CN elected officials since Oct. 2011;
- CN and CNB real estate purchases since Oct. 1, 2011;
- And CN and CNB financial and other information related to a report mailed to citizens called “Promises Made, Promises Kept.”
On April 19th, 2013, The Attorney General, Todd Hembree, stated the documents would only be made available for inspection and that no copying of the information was allowed.
On August 17th, Coates’ attorney, Chad Smith, examined the files and found that the “overwhelming bulk” of the requested information had not been produced.
On August 20th, Coates filed a lawsuit in District Court asking for the documents to be provided and that she be allowed to copy them.
On March 7th, 2014, during a District Court hearing, Hembree’s attorney Robert Nance said that 6,400 pages of documents were provided to be viewed in Hembree’s office.
On March 14th, District Court Judge Bart Fite dismissed the case saying the viewing of documents in Hembree’s office satisfies legal requirements for producing copies.
On March 21st, 2014, Smith filed an appeal and cited the 2005 case of O’Leary vs. Smith that affirmed the production of information requested by a councilor means physically providing documents.
As lawsuits go, details can be overwhelming. This case seems to involve major things such as confidentiality issues and include such minor things as rejecting the lawsuit because of the order a defendant’s name was listed on their letters of requests. More on this in Part Two.