Salt Lake Tribune  [Printer-friendly version]
September 3, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The U.S. nuclear industry made a deal with
the Skull Valley Goshutes in Utah to store high-level nuclear waste
for up to 50 years because the U.S. government has failed to open a
suitable waste repository and the waste is presently accumulating at
nuclear power plants, creating a host of dangers. Now the government
of the Goshute Tribe is experiencing serious internal difficulties,
throwing into question the viability of the nuclear industry's best-
laid plans.]

By Judy Fahys, The Salt Lake Tribune

South Salt Lake -- The door was locked, the lights out and unopened
mail stacked on the reception desk at the Skull Valley Goshutes
business office here.

It's exactly what members of the tiny Indian tribe had directed last
weekend when they voted to accept the resignation of one leader, bar
another from doing official business and take the rare step of asking
the federal government to supervise an election.

The leadership of the organization behind a multibillion-dollar plan
to store nuclear reactor waste has been in dispute for a long time.
But now, it's in meltdown.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs acknowledged that the
Skull Valley Goshutes government -- which has no constitution or
formal legal system -- is in a shambles and needs help. The BIA tries
to stay out of tribal business as a matter of policy. But, in this
case, the agency is looking into what role it can play in an election.

"It's unusual for us to do that in this day and age," said Allen S.
Anspaugh, the agency's Phoenix regional director. "Time is of the
essence, because right now, they really don't have a government."

On Aug. 26, nearly all of the 33 adults who attended the annual
meeting voted to shut down the executive committee that carries out
the tribe's daily business. Handwritten on legal paper, their
directive also formally accepts the resignation of tribal Vice
Chairman Lori Bear, cousin of Chairman Leon D. Bear, who said she was
tired of working with a "king" and forced to sign blank checks without
knowing what they were for.

The decadelong reign of Leon Bear has been riddled with allegations of
corruption and cronyism. He led the tribe of about 120 members through
the federally sponsored review of nuclear waste site hosting and
ultimately to the contract with Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of
eight utility companies. But the real trouble began when he inked the
deal for the project, billed then as a $3.1 billion venture to park up
to 44,000 tons of used nuclear waste on 100 acres across the highway
from the village where about two dozen tribe members live, about 45
miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Details of the Goshutes' contract with PFS remain secret, but the sums
are rumored to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 2003, Bear was indicted on six criminal charges, including
embezzling money from his tribe, taking double travel payments and
cheating on his taxes. He pleaded guilty to one tax charge last year,
and agreed to pay back taxes and fines, and to serve three years
probation. Bear would not respond to a telephone call seeking comment
on the latest developments. But, in a Reuters story this week, he
indicated he's going nowhere as long as the tribe's failure to get a
quorum of 44.

"I'm chief for life at this point," he said.

But his critics also have been vocal. They tried to enlist state and
federal courts, state and federal regulators and the BIA's parent
agency, the U.S. Interior Department, to probe more deeply. They have
said Bear has violated tribal law by mishandling funds, playing
favorites with supporters for government and tribal benefits and
refusing to hold a legitimate election for five years.

Little is happening with the waste project now, but the Goshutes do
have ongoing businesses, including a landfill for household garbage,
and tribal assistance programs that require oversight.

"They have to do something," said Rex Allen, the onetime tribal
secretary who helped organize the shutdown of the tribal government.
He and his sister, former tribal Vice Chair Mary Allen, have been
pushing for greater federal involvement for about five years. Allen
says he has never been removed officially as tribal secretary. And
three members who insist they were elected to the Executive Committee
in a September 2002 special election pleaded guilty to theft after
they accessed tribal bank accounts and started spending the money.

Margene Bullcreek, Bear's across-the-road neighbor and a longtime
critic, leads a group of Skull Valley members who are petitioning
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to intervene. Allen and his sister
have a case against Bear over tribal funds in Utah state court.

"We've already said what we've had to say," said Bullcreek, referring
to the Aug. 26 meeting. "And they [at the BIA] should act on that."

At least two American Indian law scholars say, though rare in modern
times, the kind of help the Goshute dissidents request is available
under the law.

Robert Miller, of the Lewis & Clark Law College in Oregon, said
the BIA is loathe to involve itself in tribal fights because it does
not want to look paternalistic. It is a tough balance to strike with
sovereign governments, with which the federal government has a trust

"The BIA has to decide who the government of the tribe is [in order]
to have a political relationship," Miller said.

Kevin Worthen, dean of the J. Ruben Clark Law School at Brigham Young
University, noted that the U.S. government has vacillated between a
heavy handed involvement in tribal affairs and a hands-off approach.
But, for the past 40 years or so, the agency has meticulously stood
back and let these "dependent, domestic nations" handle their own

"Normally, it would be rare for them to get involved," Worthen said.
"But given the high stakes [in Skull Valley] there is some chance they

Chet Mills, the BIA superintendent for Utah tribes, said he cannot
schedule an election until he gets proper paperwork from those seeking
an election. And that's being discussed with attorneys for the tribe
and for the dissidents.

"It's just as frustrating for me as for everyone else," he said.

Goshute government crisis timeline

* Waste storage lease approved: Private Fuel Storage and the Skull
Valley Band of Goshutes three-member Executive Committee, led by Leon
Bear, approve waste storage lease in May 1997. Bureau of Indian
Affairs (BIA) gives provisional approval pending PFS receiving license
to operate from federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency.

* A special tribal election ousts Bear in fall 2001. Bear says a
subsequent election confirms his leadership.

* The U.S. Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, an arm of the federal
nuclear regulation agency, offers in early 2002 to mediate tribal
leadership and corruption allegations. Later, the board's
"environmental justice" order for tribal leaders is overturned by the
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency.

* The BIA offers to mediate leadership dispute that winter, but, in
March 2003, says it recognizes Bear as the leader.

* U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell in September dismisses a lawsuit
brought by 18 tribal members seeking to remove Bear from leadership,
ruling the plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative appeals.

* The FBI, in April 2003, seizes financial papers and computers from
Goshute tribal office in South Salt Lake. Utah lawmakers ask Gale
Norton to intervene to stop the PFS proposal. Before Christmas, Bear
and the three-person government that purportedly unseated him in 2001
are indicted on embezzlement, bank fraud and tax charges.

* A new landfill is permitted on the Goshute reservation by the BIA in
July 2004 over the objections of dissident tribe members.

* Prosecutors drop five charges against Bear last summer in exchange
for a guilty plea on a single tax charge. He agrees to three years
probation. The three would-be leaders indicted at the same time, and
their attorney, plead guilty in following months to theft charges.

* The BIA says after the Skull Valley Band's August 2006 meeting that
it may opt to assist the tribe with a new election, after the vice
chair quits in protest of alleged corruption and tribal members vote
to shut down the executive committee.

(c) 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune