Before a standing-room-only crowd at the Palace Casino Bingo Hall, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Council voted 4-1 Wednesday morning to hold a recall election for Band members to decide whether Secretary-Treasurer Michael Bongo should be retained or removed from his position.
Following petitioners' reading of the charges against Bongo and Bongo's responses to the charges, the Tribal Council, also known as the Reservation Business Committee, met in a 10-minute closed session to choose the next step in the process. Chairman Arthur "Archie" LaRose said the options were removal, which would need four out of five council members voting yes; a recall election, which would require three out of five voting yes; or dismissal of the charges, which would also require three out of five yes votes.
LaRose, District I Representative Robbie Howe, District II Representative Steve White and District III Representative Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird voiced the roll call votes in favor of a recall election. Bongo voted against the measure.
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution requires the recall vote to be taken within 30 days. Because elections are traditionally held on Tuesdays, the Tribal Council set Feb. 8 as recall election day. Polls will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in all Leech Lake Band voting precincts. The ballot language will be a yes or no vote to the question: Should Secretary-Treasurer Michael J. Bongo be removed?
The issue behind the removal/recall petition relates to Bongo's Sept. 14 approval, under his single signature, of a $2.4 million loan to Bill and Kathy Bieloh and Moondance Jam, Inc. Tribal law requires financial transfers to have the approval of the Tribal Council and the signatures of both the secretary-treasurer and chairman.
The petition charges Bongo with 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 Leech Lake Reservation Business Committee.
The preamble of the petition reads: "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."
Bruce Baird, Wally Storbakken and Douglas Roberts represented the petitioners.
Baird made clear that the hearing was not a trial, but part of the process for the Tribal Council to decide whether to take further action.
"Did you act as charged?" Baird asked Bongo. "Did you perform the act of removing $2.4 million ... from the reservation to a law firm in Bemidji to develop a loan for Mr. Bieloh?"
Bongo's attorney, Leif Rasmussen of the Twin Cities, told the petitioners that his client should have the opportunity to respond. However, Baird told Rasmussen that because he was not registered with the Leech Lake Tribal Court, the attorney had no right to speak on an internal tribal matter.
LaRose asked Bongo to respond to the petitioners and call witnesses if he chose.
Bongo responded that he thought he was acting on a resolution from the Tribal Council meetings of Sept. 9 and Sept. 14 to invest the money. The funds, partial payment from Enbridge Energy for pipeline right-of-way on tribal land, was collecting less that 1 percent interest in the bank, and the agreement with the Bielohs would have returned 8 percent, he said.
"I was only doing what I thought was in the best interest of the Band," Bongo said. "I looked at it as a good investment. Were mistakes made? Sure there were in the way we went about it. It happens. What can I say? My heart was in the right place. I did not benefit one penny from this."
Besides being a good financial deal, Bongo said the loan generated goodwill in the community.
Bongo said all the Tribal Council members and Leech Lake Band staff have violated policies and procedures, so the petition was an example of a double standard being used against him. However, LaRose told Bongo to stick to the subject of the hearing and answer the charges.
"Do you have any witnesses - I'll ask you one more time," LaRose said.
But Bongo called no witnesses.
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. 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.
Lillehaug's report was presented to the Leech Lake Band membership Nov. 22. The report concludes, "We are forced to conclude that Bongo knowingly - not just negligently - violated Band law and policies."
Members of the audience Wednesday expressed in angry outbursts that Bongo should be relieved of his duties or put on administrative leave. Storbakken said Band members "want to keep a checkbook away from that man for the next 30 days."
The business of arranging the recall election - hiring Automated Election Services and appointing an election board - were the final acts of the special Tribal Council meeting before adjournment and applause from the audience.
"It's up to the Band members to decide Mike's fate," LaRose said. "The outcome of the recall election will be final."