CASS LAKE -- Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairman Arthur "Archie" LaRose accepted a petition Thursday morning for the removal and/or recall election of Secretary-Treasurer Michael Bongo.
The petition charges Bongo with the following: malfeasance in the handling of tribal affairs; dereliction or neglect of duty; refusal to comply with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution; and violations of the bylaws of the Reservation Business Committee, also known as the Tribal Council.
The recall petition preamble states, "We, the petitioners, charge that Secretary-Treasurer Michael J. Bongo did in a conspiratorial, fraudulent and secretive manner unilaterally execute a $2.4 million loan and cause misappropriation and disbursement of $2.4 million dollars of Band funds."
The issue is Bongo's Sept. 14 order to transfer $2.4 million as a loan to Bill and Kathy Bieloh of Moondance Jam, Inc.
According to an investigation by Minneapolis attorney David Lillehaug, Bongo signed the loan agreement for a term of seven years at a rate of 8 percent interest. The loan was to be paid off in annual installments of $460,973.76 beginning Sept. 14, 2011. Such transactions require signatures of both the secretary-treasurer and chairman and Tribal Council approval. Bongo approved the loan on his signature alone without Tribal Council approval, and the bank transferred the funds to the Bielohs.
Security for the loan was real estate and a life insurance policy of $1 million on Bill Bieloh. However, Bieloh only took out $500,000 in life insurance at the time of the loan. Bill Bieloh died Sept. 24 of a massive heart attack.
At a previous public meeting, Bongo said he believed the Moondance Jam investment was a positive venture as the money was earning only about 1 percent interest from the bank. The $2.4 million was part of a $3.5 million lease agreement between the Leech Lake Band and Enbridge Energy for the pipeline easement across the reservation.
At Thursday's Tribal Council meeting, Leech Lake Band members Jay Nordmarken and Douglas Roberts read the charges against Bongo and submitted a copy with the signature pages to LaRose. Band member Elizabeth Sherman spearheaded the petition drive.
Bongo occasionally laughed and smiled during the proceedings.
"This is a very serious issue, Mike," LaRose said. "You've been walking around like you have done nothing wrong."
"These are allegations and charges, and the people have a right to bring them," Bongo said. "There's due process. Once the full story is out, the people will understand."
This statement raised shouts of anger from the petitioners.
Kenn Mitchell, speaking for the petitioners, said Bongo should be suspended from his duties and not allowed to sign any checks or other documents.
"This suspension should be effective immediately - like right now," he said, to loud vocal agreement from attendees demanding LaRose use his executive power to suspend Bongo.
LaRose said immediate suspension was not possible under the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution, which the Leech Lake Band is a member. He said the Tribal Council must follow the legal process of the MCT.
"I understand the people's madness and their disappointment of what happened and their frustration," LaRose said. "It's a sad situation for the Leech Lake Reservation. It's given us a black eye in Indian Country."
However, he said he would again enquire of MCT officers whether another route would allow suspension of Bongo.
The next step in the process is to have the list of petition signatories verified against Leech Lake Band membership rolls to confirm all signers are eligible. Because LaRose's wife and District III Representative Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird's aunt are enrollment officials, LaRose said he would respect Bongo's request that MCT officers, who are not directly connected with Leech Lake Band enrollment, take responsibility for the certification of signatures. The petition was signed by 925 Band members. MCT bylaws require petitions to be signed by 20 percent of resident voters 18 years old and older - in this case about 630 signatories.
Bongo said he was satisfied with that certification arrangement.
Meanwhile, the Tribal Council has hired Hawley, Minn., attorney Zenas Baer to investigate possibilities for the return of the $2.4 million.
In a press release Thursday evening, LaRose saud he "feels strongly that the fate of the secretary-treasurer be determined by the tribal membership through a recall election per Article X, Section 3, Revised MCT Constitution."