Rural Alaska

Newtok power struggle heats up as new leaders try to evict old ones

The winning side of a power dispute in Newtok is asking a federal judge to help evict former tribal officials from their old office and compel them to relinquish records long deemed no longer theirs. The new leadership faction in the Yup'ik village sought the relief late Thursday.

The flood-prone village of about 380 has begun a physical move to higher ground 9 miles away. The power dispute, however, stalled millions of dollars in government funds for relocation efforts. Government officials have estimated the village, 480 miles west of Anchorage, has until the end of the decade before erosion causes severe damage.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to direct state troopers to enforce a Nov. 4 ruling that ordered the former leaders to stop representing themselves as the governing body. Plaintiffs also want the old leaders escorted from the tribal building and their records, including the tribal office, seized.

Tom John, tribal administrator of the new council, said by phone Friday he hopes the new filing will help resolve the matter "so we can go forward."

Also reached by phone Friday, former tribal administrator Stanley Tom declined to comment. Another former Newtok official, Joseph Tommy, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The new faction won a federal lawsuit against the old leadership by default earlier this year. In last month's permanent injunction against former village officials, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline said the defendants "were properly served in this matter and have failed to appear or otherwise contest the allegations raised in Petitioners' complaint."

John said the former village leaders have continued to present themselves as the legitimate governing body, and plaintiffs' attorney Michael Walleri said the ex-leaders have ignored orders to give up the old tribal office, as well as old records. Walleri said the records are required to complete outstanding old audit work for access to existing funds.

"Well, we can't do an audit if we don't have the records," Walleri said.

In August, a federal appeals panel also sided with the members of the new tribal council. The Interior Board of Indian Appeals had stepped in to review a 2013 ruling by the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizing the new council for bureau funding purposes.

The old council appealed the initial BIA decision. But in its later ruling, the appeals board said former leaders failed to submit any evidence supporting the authority they claimed to have.

In its ruling, the BIA said required elections purportedly were not held for more than seven years, so the old council had operated on expired terms. The old council denied the allegations.

The new council members were first elected in October 2012. The following month, members of the old council held another election.

The resulting dispute reached a boiling point the following year when the new council got more votes during a community meeting attended by both sides. That victory carried significant weight in the BIA's rare intervention.

In its August decision, the Indian appeals board rejected arguments made on appeal by the old council that it had been holding elections and that the October 2012 vote was invalid.

Adding to the complication of the dispute, past audits by the state concluded that the old faction mismanaged the administration of relocation grants, such as changing the architectural design of the evacuation center after it took over the project from the state in 2011.

The audit also noted apparent payroll improprieties, including exorbitant compensation for certain employees. The audit recommended that the tribe return about $300,000 to the state for alleged improprieties including duplicate payments on invoices and retroactive wages for employees. It's unclear if that money has been repaid, and state grant officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Tribal officials have denied any mismanagement.