Ute Tribe leader suspended, 2 others threatened with recall

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 23 2011 12:00 p.m. MST

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — From the outside looking in, it would be easy to believe that the government of the Ute Indian Tribe is in utter disarray.

One member of the tribe's governing Business Committee is serving an unpaid 90-day suspension from office. Two others are the subject of recall petitions being circulated among the members of the tribal bands they represent.

But Business Committee Chairwoman Irene Cuch — the subject of one of the recall petitions — said Monday that the tribe's elected leaders "continue to do the people's business."

"I think we're moving in a good direction and accomplishing a lot, despite our problems," Cuch said.

The petition seeking Cuch's removal from office accuses her of malfeasance, misuse of tribal funds and micromanagement of tribal personnel. The claims, however, lack specificity, Cuch said.

"Malfeasance? Where's the malfeasance?" she asked rhetorically. "Misappropriation of tribal funds? What tribal funds? When? Where? How much? They haven't said."

Cuch represents the Uintah Band on the six-member Business Committee — the Ute Tribe's combined executive and legislative branch. She believes the recall petition against her is a political attack by supporters of Business Committee member Richard Jenks Jr., who lost his position as the body's chairman to Cuch earlier this year.

On Nov. 8, Jenks was suspended without pay from his seat on the Business Committee for a period of 90 days. The suspension was warranted because Jenks, who represents members of the tribe's Uncompahgre Band, had missed at least 14 Business Committee meetings, Cuch said.

"There was never any notice as to why he was absent," she said. "To me it constituted dereliction of duty."

Jenks acknowledged the absences, but said he had legitimate reasons for missing the meetings.

"Either I was meeting with constituents or visiting (tribal) departments," he said. "I was trying to keep in touch with the people. I don't know what I did wrong."

The absences "never interfered with the government's function," Jenks added. "They always had a quorum."

Since his suspension, Jenks has used Facebook to rally his supporters and criticize those who have spread rumors about him that he described as "perverted." Some of those rumors apparently attracted the attention of the FBI, according to Jenks' posts on the social media site.

"I guess the rumor is I'm in hiding 'cause I'm being investigated by the feds," Jenks wrote on Nov. 2, six days before he was suspended from office. "Just wanted people to know, we'll weather the rumors."

FBI spokeswoman Debbie Dujanovic declined to say whether Jenks is the target of an investigation or what the allegations against him might be. Jenks told the Deseret News he has not been interviewed by FBI agents or been asked to meet with them.

"It's dirty politics and we're trying to deal with it," said Jenks, who has appealed his suspension in Ute Tribal Court.

He said fellow Business Committee member Stewart Pike is one of the people behind his suspension. Pike, who also represents the Uncompahgre Band, is facing a possible recall from office as well. He said the possibility of being recalled doesn't scare him.

"It's not a threat, it's in the (Ute Tribe) Constitution," Pike said. "It's not a new thing."

In fact, recall petitions and recall elections are nothing new on the reservation.

Last year, then-Business Committee Chairman Curtis Cesspooch survived at least one recall election before he was ousted by Uintah Band voters. When he tried to fight his ouster in tribal court, Cesspooch was threatened with banishment from the tribe. The threat was never carried out.

Pike himself was recalled in 1995 after serving 14 years on the Business Committee. The chance of being removed from office at any time is something every Ute Tribe politician must accept, he said.

"(A tribal member) can wake up on the wrong side of the bed and decide to recall you," Pike said, referring to the low threshold required by tribal law to initiate a recall petition.

Efforts to obtain copies of the petitions being circulated for the recall of Cuch and Pike were unsuccessful, as were efforts to reach those circulating the petitions.

The petitioners seeking Cuch's removal have until Jan. 8 to collect signatures from at least one-third of the tribe's Uintah Band members. Those seeking Pike's removal must collect signatures from at least one-third of the tribe's Uncompaghre Band members by the same date.

If the required signatures are collected and verified, an election commission will be appointed and recall elections will be held no later than Feb. 3.

Both Cuch and Pike said they're focused on continuing to work for their constituents and not on the possibility that they might be recalled.

"We're moving forward on all aspects of tribal government, period," Pike said. "There will be no delays." 

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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