Isleta Tribal Council removes two councilors from office

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Two Isleta Pueblo Tribal Council members were removed from office this week on charges of malfeasance.

After a closed hearing Wednesday, the council, in an 8-2 vote, voted to unseat ReGina Zuni and Diane Peigler from office.

Zuni has been on the council for two years. Peigler served on the council from 1989 to 1992, and again from 2002 until Wednesday.

Both Zuni and Peigler were notified of Wednesday's hearing through a hand delivered letter from the council by Undersheriff Robert Chewiwi the day before the hearing.

According to the Pueblo of Isleta procedures for removal, the hearing was closed to the public and recordings of the meeting shall be made available by the council to tribal members "upon request and showing of good cause."

"They adopted a bizarre version of due process the same day they approved the charges," said Zuni.

The procedures of removal were adopted on March 13, the same day the council approved the charges against Peigler and Zuni, according to the letter to the women.

Restraining orders placed against the women by the council in February were lifted for the hearing, and Piegler and Zuni were given 30 minutes each to address the council.

Zuni said at the hearing, only one of her accusers who signed and provided affidavits against her was present and she was not allowed to address them. None of the individuals who signed and provided affidavits against Peigler were present, she said.

"Lt. Gov. Antonio Chewiwi and former Gov. Robert Benavides both agreed that I had a right to address my accusers regarding the false statements," said Pegler in a statement to the News-Bulletin. "And both their statements are on the audio recordings of said hearing. And all this because the Isleta Tribal Council is afraid to send the ethics code to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in accordance with our Isleta tribal constitution. So, whose in violation of the tribal constitution? Indian Civil Rights Act? And how many other laws?"

Peigler was charged with four counts, including interfering in a criminal investigation and police work, intimidation of the Isleta Police Department, interfering in police and social services matters and intimidation of tribal employees.

Copies of the charges and letters between her and the council can be found on Piegler's blog at www.peigler.wordpress.com.

Zuni was charged with seven similar charges, which she called "trumped up," including disrespect for tribal council protocol and custom and tradition. The council charges that Zuni left a meeting during the closing prayer. Gov. Frank Lujan informed Zuni, "that if that's the way she feels that the 'road is open and she can leave,'" according to the charges.

However, Zuni says the council is operating under double standards and used the example of Councilor Mark Dixon, whom she said in a statement to the News-Bulletin Thursday, "violated the sanctity of our traditions and customs by recording in our sacred kivas. As a result of Councilman Dixon's utter disrespect for our traditions and customs, he has been banned for life from one kiva society.

"In spite of the banishment, (Tribal Council) President Fred Lujan, along with Gov. Lujan, have failed to take action against Councilman Dixon."

Gov. Lujan declined to comment on the matter.

"I firmly believe that this 'due process hearing' was only a show in order to inform the community that they afforded me due process," posted Piegler on her blog Thursday.

Zuni said she demanded accountability and transparency from the tribal government that was "foreign to Isleta's status quo political system."

"People are going to draw their own conclusions, but to me, fundamentally, it's because I'm a woman and I'm outspoken," said Zuni Thursday after learning of her removal from the council.

"It is disgusting and outrageous for women to endure such disrespect — Isleta being a matriarchal society," she said. "Look at what is happening to women across Indian country. There is intolerance and disdain for strong indigenous women that advocate for positive political reform in their respective tribal governments across this country."

There are three other women, Barbara Sanchez, Josephine Padilla and Cynthia Jaramillo, who are members of the Isleta Tribal Council.

She said that even though she is no longer a councilor, she will continue working as a legal advocate in tribal court and to set a positive example for the young women and girls in her community, including her two nieces, ages 17 and 11, who have expressed interest in running for tribal council when they are old enough.

Peigler also said she is going to continue advocating for tribal members.

The council conducted the hearing pursuant to Article VII, Section 2 of the Pueblo of Isleta Tribal Constitution. The constitution says any officer of the tribal council may be removed or recalled from office if "found guilty by the council of malfeasance in office, or gross neglect of duty."

In order to be found guilty, the council must hold a hearing within 10 days after presenting the accused officer with a written statement of the charges.

The council member would then be removed from office following the hearing by an affirmative vote of no less than 2/3 of the full court.

"We were elected by the public through the democratic process and will not allow this lawless action to go unchallenged," said Zuni.

On March 6, Peigler and Zuni delivered a request to the tribal council for a formal investigation of tribal attorney Pablo H. Padilla based on "allegations of misconduct and potential misuse and abuse of Pueblo of Isleta resources."

According to the request, Padilla was involved in a collision while driving a Pueblo of Isleta vehicle in November 2010 that was never investigated, received free and discounted rooms at the Hard Rock Hotel between July 2009 and February 2012, and received a salary increase of $90,000 to $140,000 for his expertise in water issues.

The request says that while Padilla claimed he could independently address all water issues for the pueblo, there have been numerous invoices from Albuquerque law firm Sonosky, Chambers, Mielke, and Brownell, LLC requesting payment for legal work related to water issues.

"In the interest of protecting our tribal assets and resources, we deserve an investigation to address our concerns," the request from Peigler and Zuni states. "Again we reference Gov. Lujan's pledged to have a transparent government. We, the tribal members, deserve an investigation into the allegations of misconduct and the potential misuse and abuse of our POI assets and resources."

On March 14, Zuni filed an emergency petition for constitutional review and request for injunctive relief to review the constitutionality (under the tribal constitution) of the ethics code and the tribal council's constitutional authority to suspend Zuni from the council for ethics code violations.

Zuni says the ethics code was never sent to the BIA for approval by the secretary of interior and is therefore moot.

On March 16, Padilla filed a request to deny and dismiss the petition.


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.