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Dueling Lawsuits Expose Rift In Northern Arapaho Business Council

Northern Arapaho Tribe

It's been a summer of leadership turnover for the Northern Arapaho Tribe. In June, the tribe's Business Council voted 4-2 not to renew the contract of Jim Conrad, longtime CEO of the Wind River Casino. Soon after, it voted 4-2 to fire Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd, the Lander-based law firm that had represented the tribe for more than 30 years.

Now, dueling lawsuits filed in Wyoming's 9th District Court are shedding light on a rift within the Business Council over some of those decisions.

Tribe Sues Long-Time Legal Counsel

In a statement last week, the Northern Arapaho Business Council said it had no choice but to sue its former law firm. It said that Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd was withholding confidential documents and more than $1 million in tribal funds.

Attorney Keith Harper of Kilpatrick Townsend, the Atlanta-based firm that is now representing the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said Northern Arapaho citizens should be angry about this.

"What they should understand is that they’ve been ripped off," Harper said. "Not turning over a client's own documents is really extraordinary abuse. Not turning over their funds is extraordinary abuse."

The lawsuit also alleges that Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd has refused to account for billings over the years and since its firing in June.

The Business Council voted 4-0 on June 6 to sue. Court filings include affidavits from those four council members swearing that the remaining two, Councilmen Anthony "Al" Addison and Samuel Dresser simply did not show up to the scheduled vote.

Dresser and Addison tell a different story.

Dissenting Councilmen File Separate Suit

"Well, it’s a big mess," said Samuel Dresser. "It's all false allegations."

Along with Business Council Co-Chairman Al Addison, Dresser said he was deliberately excluded from voting on the resolution, and that he would have voted against it.

Credit Northern Arapaho Tribe Facebook page
The Northern Arapaho Business Council.

"Me and Al, we've been on [the Business Council] a long time, and what they're doing is wrong. They just push us aside like we're dogs. We're not dogs. They don't tell us what they do until later," Dresser said.

Dresser and Addison, the two most senior members of the Business Council, voted against firing Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd in the first place. They believe the firm doesn’t actually owe the tribe any money, and that the Business Council majority is raising a false alarm.

Documents obtained by Wyoming Public Radio show that in fact, the law firm's managing partner Kelly Rudd wired more than $920,000 to tribal officials in two transfers on June 10 and 11. That’s roughly the amount that the Business Council Majority claims it is owed.

So, Dresser and Addison filed a lawsuit against the tribe’s new legal counsel, Kilpatrick Townsend.

It alleges that the firm had ulterior motives for wanting to take the tribe on as a client, and that it arranged for Wind River Casino employees who threatened their control over the enterprise be terminated.

Former Casino Employees Claim Retaliatory Firings

"We believe [Kilpatrick Townsend] coordinated a hostile takeover of the casino," said Faith Wallowing Bull, a co-plaintiff listed in that lawsuit.

Wallowing Bull is the former Chief Financial Officer of the Wind River Hotel and Casino. In the months leading up to her July 18 termination, she said she alerted the Business Council to potential violations of Federal Gaming Regulations.

She suspects she was fired because Kilpatrick Townsend saw her as a threat to its influence over the casino.

"That's how some [current] employees feel," Wallowing Bull said. "Like if they stand up for something they feel is not right, they’re going to lose their job."

The lawsuit also includes former casino Human Resources manager Rosella Morin as a plaintiff. In June, Morin submitted a complaint on behalf of a casino employee alleging that Business Councilman Lee Spoonhunter sent threatening and harassing texts to the employee. When she was fired in July, casino officials said that Morin was an "at-will" employee and gave no reason for her termination.

Accused Law Firms Defend Themselves

Both Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd and Kilpatrick Townsend say the allegations against them are false.

Attorney Ryan Ortiz, who represents Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd, said the firm has documents proving it returned all funds held in trust for the tribe. However, he admits it is withholding some confidential documents because of concerns about the tribe’s new lawyers.

"The tribes are involved in opioid litigation against some of the opioid manufacturers. And it became apparent that [Kilpatrick Townsend] actually was representing some of those manufacturers that the tribe had litigation against," Ortiz said.

A 2002 agreement between the Business Council and Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd allows the firm to act in a gatekeeping role when the tribe retains new counsel, including conducting a conflict of interest check.

As for broader allegations that Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd had been working to gain influence over the Business Council's decision making, Ortiz said the firm is only performing its due diligence.

"[Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd] doesn't have any decision making with the Council […] but it has been protective of the tribes to make sure that the other firms that are working with the tribes don't have conflicts and have the tribal best interest at heart," Ortiz said.

But it's exactly that kind of language that many Northern Arapaho tribal members find paternalistic and condescending.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Attorney Keith Harper of the Kilpatrick Townsend firm

"We do not need [to hire] non-Indians and pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars to think for us," Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter said at an August 5 informational meeting at the Wind River Hotel and Casino. Tribal members reacted with applause.

At the same meeting, Kilpatrick Townsend Attorney Keith Harper told tribal members that the "hostile takeover" he and his firm are accused of orchestrating would be contrary to their guiding principles.

"When you represent a tribe, it is vitally important that the people who make decisions for the tribe is the tribe itself through its elected leadership," Harper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said. "That's what tribal sovereignty means. Tribal sovereignty does not mean lawyers go in and make decisions for the tribe."

Big Questions for the General Council

The tribal community will have an opportunity to weigh in at this Sunday’s general council meeting, open to all Northern Arapaho citizens aged 18 and older.

For now, the feeling of mistrust within the community is palpable. Agenda items submitted for Saturday's meeting include a resolution to fire Kilpatrick Townsend and another to ban Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd from working with the tribe "in perpetuity."

General Council members will also vote on a resolution to remove Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter, the top vote-getter in the 2018 tribal election, from office.

The majority of questions submitted at last night's informational meeting were in favor of the leadership changes approved by the Business Council this summer, including cutting ties with Jim Conrad and the Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd firm. Dissenting Business Councilmen Addison and Dresser were not present at the meeting.

The Northern Arapaho General Council meeting is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 10 at Blue Sky Hall in Ethete.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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