Ute elder Cecelia Jenkins wants Congress to hold her tribal leaders accountable when it comes to Uinta Basin finances specifically $190 million in "water settlement funds" withdrawn from federal holdings last week.
"We want to know how our money is spent," said Jenkins, one of about 25 protesters at the federal building in downtown Salt Lake on Thursday calling for a congressional investigation into the tribe's financial management.
Tribal Chairwoman Maxine Natchees says the plans to withdraw the funds have been announced at General Council meetings as part of the overall financial management plan.
But the protesters say they were unaware of plans for the withdrawal and have yet to see any plans the Ute Business Committee has for the management of the money.
The $190 million makes up the bulk of the funds awarded to the tribe in the mid-1990s under the Central Utah Water Completion Act.
Natchees said the Office of Trust Funds Management did "a very poor job" of managing the money, so two years ago the Business Committee started the process of moving the money to private management.
"We saw development around Uinta Basin but nothing on the reservation," she said. "All we're doing is making sure we get maximum benefits from our investment. . . . We are really working for financial stability for the tribe, so we can provide more jobs, more programs."
Sandy Hansen, attorney for those who oppose the fund release, said she is sending a formal letter requesting a congressional investigation to Utah's Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, and to Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
Natchees said $190 million is being managed by the New York firm Bear Stearns. However, the protesters believe it is in the control of the Venture Board, under the direction of John Jurrius and his company the Jurrius Group. The tribe pays Jurrius $50,000 a month, "plus 10 percent of every deal," said former tribal Chairman Floyd Wopsock.
Wopsock said he was a member of the committee when it voted unanimously to hire Jurrius but was later ousted from leadership because he asked too many questions about money management.
"We're at the point and time that nothing positive has happened for the tribe," Wopsock said. "Our financial plan needs a complete overhaul."
Hansen says the Business Committee never held required public meetings before withdrawing the funds, and the Business Committee's validity has been under federal court challenge since October 2003.
"What's particularly upsetting is the Department of Interior now maintains that because it released the money, it has no more authority or obligation for it," Hansen said. "That means the $190 million could end up in the Bahamas tomorrow and the tribe would have no recourse."
However, Natchees said the money remains under the same restrictions as when it was federally managed.
"It's not accessible to us. We can't withdraw and spend it the way we want," Natchees said. "Their allegations are the government cut us a check for that amount. That's absolutely not true."
Alyson Heyrend, communications director for Matheson, said tribal members brought the issue to Matheson's attention at a meeting Wednesday.
"We're at the beginning of looking into this issue," Heyrend said. "There is severe disagreement within the tribe on this issue."
Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman Gary Garrison said the BIA doesn't get involved in internal tribal matters, though it could step in and mediate if requested by the tribe. He added that BIA "would certainly do what Congress wants us to do."
Once released to the tribe, the funds "become the personal dollars of the tribe. It's up to them to manage the funds themselves," he said. "There may not be anything at this point and time that Congress and BIA can do."The money is the Ute Tribe's compensation for the federal government's breach of a 1965 agreement in which the Utes deferred the development of certain lands so that the water from those lands could be used as part of the Central Utah Project's Bonneville Unit, which supplies water to the Wasatch Front.