Monday, January 26, 2009

The Tribe In The News: Mohegans Clamping Down On The Press

Feather News


This installment of The Tribe In The Media series, which is compilation of articles reflecting how the Tribe is portrayed in the media (which some think is a way to just copy and paste articles from other publications), is an article from yesterday's The Day newspaper concerning the alleged abridgement of press freedoms at Mohegan.

While neither the editor of Brokenwing or Feather News spoke to the press about these issues on the Reservation, it is not surprising that local journalists are showing concerns regarding press and information freedoms.

It came as a surprise, however, to read the conversations between The Day reporter and a Tribal Councilor concerning our Tribal Court. As members will notice in the following article, the Tribal Council has jeopardized the integrity of our judicial system with careless statements.

In my brief experiences with the Tribal Court - both as a plaintiff in the ongoing voting rights case and as an observer - I have thus far witnessed fair proceedings. Tribal members are encouraged to attend the hearing next Friday at 10 a.m. in the Tribal meeting room (which doubles as the Tribal Courtroom) to observe Tribal Court proceedings that will focus on whether the courtroom will be closed and whether the temporary sealing of the case file described below will be lifted or whether it will be permanent.

The Mohegan Tribal Court has its own rules, which essentially applies the Mohegan Gaming Disputes Court's rules when in conflict. If neither court has an applicable rule, such as the issue at hand regarding the sealing of case files or closing courtrooms, then Connecticut Superior Court rules apply in the Tribal Court. The Connecticut Superior Court rule regarding the sealing of files mandates that a hearing be held so that the public can have input.

It is my hope that the issues outlined in the below article reflect our Indian nation's growing pains and that the problems do not become institutionalized. Our fellow Mohegan citizens deserve better from our Tribal Council.

Editorial: Mohegans Clamping Down On The Press
By David Collins
The Day newspaper
January 25, 2009

Imagine a place where a government, apparently stung by the criticism of a vibrant and sometimes sassy local press, moves not just to restrict what might be legally published about the government but also prosecutes a journalist who has leveled some of the attacks.

Sounds like something you'd expect in some autocratic Third World country, right? It's certainly nothing you'd find here in the United States, at a time when a fresh Obama administration is promising a new era of transparency in government, right?

Wrong.

In fact, right here in Connecticut, the Mohegan Tribal Council is pursuing a “good standing” complaint against a tribal member for things he has posted on his Web site, brokenwingeditorials.blogspot.com, according to another Web site that publishes news of the tribe, feathernews.blogspot.com.

The tribal council has also just passed a new Freedom of Information law, one the brokenwing blog facetiously calls the “Restriction of Information Ordinance,” which makes it unlawful for tribal members to make tribal records public.

A successful petition to put the new law to a vote by all tribal members has been filed with the government, the blogs report.

All this might be dismissed as just messy tribal politics, except that this week, in what appeared to be an effort to put a lid on any reporting of the issue, the government sealed the records of a lawsuit being brought in Tribal Court by the brokenwing author.

Not only is the government trying to restrict what tribal members can or cannot publish, they are casting doubt on the independence of the tribe's court system, one that is supposed to be the alternative to Connecticut courts when someone wants to bring a complaint against the sovereign nation.

What confidence can the general public have in this court if it is not open and free from influence by the tribal government? If the government can close cases it finds embarrassing, how might it interfere with ones that will cost it money?

The brokenwing lawsuit was sealed Thursday by Tribal Court Judge Paul M. Guernsey, a court clerk told me, three days after I asked to look at it. Before the record was actually sealed, I experienced lots of stalling tactics, including a report from a tribal spokesman Wednesday that a “representative of the Tribal Council” was meeting with someone from the court about my request.

By Thursday afternoon I got a call from Tribal Vice Chairwoman Lynn Malerba, who, I was told, would be the person designated to respond to questions about the lawsuit.

Malerba wouldn't say much of anything beyond “no comment” but did claim that the request to seal the lawsuit came from the tribe's Council of Elders.

”It's not the tribe's tradition to share information with the public at large,” she said.

When I asked if I could attend a hearing in Tribal Court on the lawsuit by the brokenwing author, scheduled for Friday afternoon, she said: “Absolutely not.”

It seems to me the correct answer, from a government official, would be to suggest that I ask the court.

My reporting experience with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court could not be more different. The Pequot court building is easily accessible to the public. Court staff are professional and helpful and they promptly make available court records, no matter how embarrassing they may be for the tribal government.

In a hearing not long ago on a petition by Pequot tribal members to recall the Tribal Council, court officials made sure there was room for the press in the crowded courtroom, even if it meant some tribal members had to wait outside.

I'm not sure what disclosures the Mohegan tribal government might be worried that blogs by tribal members are making. A broad reading of the blogs' archives show they are mostly a discussion of material that is already known to the general public, much of it financial information from federal Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

But there is a lot of pointed criticism of the Tribal Council, from decisions to pursue unsuccessful ventures outside Connecticut to the councilors' decision not to cut their own pay when they initiated their latest cost-saving measures, including pay cuts for casino workers and possible layoffs for government employees.

The “good standing” complaint against the brokenwing writer, a judicial proceeding in which the Council of Elders can consider whether a member is in good standing in the tribe and impose punishments, was brought by Tribal Council Chairman Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum and another councilor, according to feathernews.

In his lawsuit, the brokenwing writer claims the good standing process does not offer the procedures of a fair trial or a proper forum for appeal, according to the blog.

The feathernews site traces the start of “harassment” of the blog writers to a link that was posted on feathernews to a video on YouTube, a movie trailer in which Bozsum appears surrounded by bikini-clad women.

”Much to the horror of many tribal members, at the end of the movie trailer the Mohegan Sun hotel was blown up,” the blog reported.

It would be hard to know just what may have triggered the new crackdown on press freedoms by the Tribal Council, but it's an ill-considered one, especially if it's motivated by sensitivity to political attacks.

Maybe the councilors should pay attention to the winds of change that are blowing through Washington these days, a spirit being evoked by the tribal bloggers, before they start blowing too hard on the Mohegan reservation.