Salt Lake Tribune, 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 relationship.

"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 affairs.

"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 would."

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