Two individuals told Norma Merriman in their own words that she would not be able to do her job after she was hired as the Osage Nation’s first health and wellness division leader.
Merriman recalled those encounters during her April 9 interview with the ON Congressional Committee on Government Operations. She didn’t believe those two individuals were intending to be mean, but honest with her. “And I thought I’d just do the best I can,” Merriman said as she shared her on-the-job experiences with the committee less than two weeks after being terminated by the Executive Branch.
In the end, Merriman (Cherokee) told the Congressional committee she was not allowed to discipline certain employees who are related to high-ranking Executive Branch officials.
Merriman said: “I really support the merit system, I don’t believe the merit system has been fully implemented and followed, I really want to support the staff I had the opportunity to work with … They are being impacted by a double standard that does exist and I believe that’s why I am no longer here because I identified that and tried to deal with it and it didn’t make some people very happy.”
Merriman, who previously worked in a similar position as Group Leader for Cherokee Nation Human Services, also raised allegations that at least one of those ON government employees violated client confidentiality by sharing sensitive client information with others.
“We work in the people business,” Merriman said of maintaining confidentiality. “We work in the business of people who have needs, some are mental, some are physical, some have to do with losing their children, or sometimes happily getting a child.”
The Health and Wellness Division leader post held by Merriman was created through the FY 2012 budget process.This is also the first year of implementation for the Nation’s merit-based employment system. The Health and Wellness Division leader is responsible for overseeing 10 ON department directors, which handle health and social service-related matters. Those departments combined employ approximately 100 people, Merriman said.
The five-member Congressional committee sought the meeting with Merriman and Executive Branch leaders and staff after Merriman’s abrupt dismissal and the resignation from the entire four-member ON Health Authority Board April 3.
Members of the Executive Branch were invited to the hearing but did not attend.
Four days before the congressional hearing Principal Chief John Red Eagle emailed two memorandums to all government staff with one of them stating: “Under no circumstance will ANY Executive branch employee be in attendance unless they are subpoenaed.” The second memorandum requires approval from the Chief’s office of all correspondence between Executive Branch employees and Congressional members “whether verbal, written or electronic.”
Congress and its committees have the authority to issue subpoenas for records, documents or individual testimony, but no subpoenas were issued following the April 9 meeting, which included a closed-door two-hour executive session with Merriman following the public portion of the meeting.
Merriman fielded questions from the Congressional committee members present as well as former Health Authority Board member Lynette Freeman who attended in-person.
Freeman and former fellow board members Tim Tall Chief and Ron Shaw, M.D. interviewed Merriman for the division leader position in December 2011 along with Executive Branch officials, Merriman said. Two days prior to her termination, Merriman said she was in Tucson, Ariz., with the health board members for a conference training targeting tribes interested in the Indian Health Service Tribal Self-Governance program to compact its local IHS operations.
Established by 2011 Osage law, the Health Authority Board has expressed interest in compacting the IHS clinic in Pawhuska so the tribe will have a stronger say in financing the clinical operations. Merriman was also charged with assisting the health board with pursuing any IHS compacting efforts. “I would’ve been, but we weren’t there yet … we were waiting for the powers that be to say we can go forward with compacting,” she said.
On April 3, Shaw, Tall Chief, Freeman and fellow board member Ray Hankins signed a letter of resignation addressed to Chief Red Eagle. The board members wrote: “It is clear that you plan to run the Health and Wellness Division without any input or consideration from the Health Authority. We simply are unable to fulfill the responsibility as delegated to us (via Osage law). Furthermore, we believe that based on recent Executive Branch actions and decisions that compacting the clinic will not be successful under 638 compact.”
Merriman would not disclose names or job titles of those involved in the allegations she raised of favoritism and breach of confidentiality due to the sensitive nature of personnel and client information involved. “I prefer to speak in executive session,” she said when questioned about specifics. Later the committee motioned to start the closed-door meeting for an executive session.
Before the executive session started, Merriman said: “I was told not to take disciplinary action on certain individuals.” Congressman William “Kugee” Supernaw asked Merriman if she was asked to destroy an employee’s personnel file. She said “no.” He also asked Merriman if she was aware of “a list of untouchable” employees that existed which exempted them from work-related penalties. She responded: “no … I’ve experienced people that were untouchable.”
About two weeks after starting the job, Merriman said, a situation had occurred where an employee breached program confidentiality. I “brought that to the attention of (human resources department) to seek guidance.” She said Human Resources Director Delary Walters “was equally concerned” about the issue.
“It was a relative of someone at the executive level,” Merriman said of the employee at issue. “I was told to talk to that person, I did my research … When I had the discussion (with the Executive Branch official), I did talk about the positives, I talked about the facts of what this person had done” and concerns of confidentiality breach.
Merriman said the breach of confidentiality “had to do with a fellow employee” that was seeking services from the Nation as an individual client. “I asked for recommendations and how to proceed … this person needed to think about it,” she said. As time passed, Merriman did not hear any feedback from Walters or Deidre Bigheart, the ON director of operations, about the allegations raised.
“Short version is – nothing was done,” Merriman said.
Merriman said other events occurred which she described as “things have happened I have never dealt with before.” Those events would be discussed in executive session.
Speaker Jerri Jean Branstetter asked Merriman if instances of concern raised by her occurred in more than one department to which Merriman replied: “yes.”
Merriman said she was never fully allowed to seek disciplinary action against the employee at issue and mentioned the lack of no action could impact work morale of others. “People know these things have happened and when they see that we’re not taking any action, it demoralizes your staff.”
The meeting with Merriman adjourned after the executive session. The committee did not vote to issue any subpoenas but it was a topic the following morning during the April 10 session.
The Congress voted down a motion by Congresswoman Shannon Edwards to allow the government operations committee to issue subpoenas regarding Merriman’s testimony. Congressman Raymond Red Corn said the motion was redundant since Congressional committees have the authority to issue subpoenas and said the subpoena discussion should occur in the committee.
Red Corn also motioned for the Congress to seek an opinion from Attorney General Jeff Jones regarding the legality of Chief Red Eagle’s April 5 memos to Executive Branch employees. He questioned whether the memos exceed the powers of the branch. The motion passed with 10 “yes” votes and one “no” vote from Congressman Mark Simms and one absence from Congressman Anthony Shackelford.