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Recall hearing scheduled for Leech Lake Secretary-Treasurer Bongo

In a special meeting Thursday, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Council voted to accept the removal/recall petition for Secretary-Treasurer Michael Bongo.

Leech Lake members submitted the petition to the Tribal Council, also known as the Reservation Business Committee, Dec. 16. According to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution, petitioners had to obtain the signatures of 20 percent of resident enrolled eligible voters 18 years old and older. The removal/recall petition had 925 signatures; 20 percent would have been 624 signatures.

The process then required the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, of which the Leech Lake Band is a member, to verify the signatures. MCT verified 815 petition signers as meeting the eligibility requirements.

The Tribal Council vote to accept the removal/recall petition was 3-2 with District I Representative Robbie Howe, District III Representative Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird and Chairman Arthur "Archie" LaRose voting in favor and Bongo and District II Representative Steve White voting against.

The Tribal Council scheduled a hearing at 10 a.m. Jan. 12 at the Palace Casino to consider charges and evidence against Bongo and determine appropriate action. According to a press release from the Tribal Council, the result of the Jan. 12 hearing could be removal or recall of Bongo, or no action. A recall election would have to be held within 30 days of the hearing. In any case, the action of the Tribal Council or the outcome of the recall election would be final.

The issue behind the removal/recall petition relates to Bongo's Sept. 14 approval under his single signature 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 Reservation Business Committee, also known as the Tribal Council.

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."

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."

During the Nov. 22 public meeting, the Tribal Council voted 3-2, with the same three members voicing the yes-votes, to prosecute the individuals involved in the $2.4 million loan. At that point, the Tribal Council hired Hawley, Minn., attorney Zenas Baer to move forward with legal action toward recovery the funds.

At the Dec. 16 meeting petitioners demanded the immediate suspension of Bongo from his duties. However, LaRose explained that neither the Tribal Council nor himself as executive could suspend a legally elected Tribal Council member. Due process requires hearings and appropriate action.

Consequently, LaRose said, Bongo continues with his duties.

"He's still the secretary-treasurer," he said.