The Osage Nation Attorney General’s Office has sent approximately 60 notices to individuals scheduled for removal from the Osage Nation’s membership roll.
The Fourth Osage Nation Congress passed ONCA 16-16 in December of last year, sponsored by Congresswoman Shannon Edwards, which amended the original Membership Law and restated Congressional authority over the membership roll. The new law set up a process to remove an individual from the membership roll and that power lies within the Osage Nation Trial Court, with the investigations handled by the AG’s office.
Assistant Attorney General Clint Patterson said he mailed a batch of approximately 27 notices to individuals in February. A second batch consisting of approximately 35 notices was mailed in March. The AG’s office denied an open records request by the Osage News for copies of the notices due to the confidential and sensitive personal information contained within.
However, Patterson did give the Osage News two samples of notices with individuals’ names redacted. According to the notice, the AG’s office will file the removal action in the ON Trial Court no sooner than 30 days upon receipt of the notice. The individuals have the “right to a hearing for a final determination of your membership status within ninety (90) days from the receipt of the Petition to Remove Membership Status.”
The individuals are also given the opportunity to relinquish their Osage Nation membership. If an individual voluntarily relinquishes their membership, the AG’s office will not set a hearing and will consider the matter closed.
Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear has said that if an individual is being investigated by the AG’s office then benefits such as the Osage Nation Health Benefit Card, the ON Higher Education Scholarship, financial assistance and other benefits will be suspended during the investigation. If proven the individual was fraudulently enrolled then that individual may be subject to restitution of benefits received.
ON Membership Office Director Sarah Oberly said when she is reviewing a file and finds blatant evidence of falsified information, she forwards the file to the AG’s office and then she recommends suspension of benefits to Casey Johnson, the Nation’s director of operations. Johnson then notifies the directors of those programs who administer benefits.
Standing Bear said he knows for a fact that individuals’ membership benefits have been stopped due to the investigations by the AG’s office.
“I have heard from some people who have had their benefits suspended. I have personally heard from them, and so I know they have been received. I have referred them to the Attorney General,” he said. “I have heard from at least one person who told me they did not know the alleged problem [of their membership being questioned] and I just refer them to the attorney general.”
Although benefits will be suspended for individuals under investigation for fraudulent membership, they will still have the Constitutional right to vote in the upcoming congressional election, Patterson said. He said the AG’s office is working to have the cases wrapped up before June.
Membership Office review
Oberly said since the membership office moved to its new location to the Welcome Center last year, there are still many files in boxes.
She did verify that her office would be reviewing all documents and files in the membership office, which consists of approximately 27,000 files. Those files contain more than 80,000 documents, she said. The review will more than likely take at least five years to complete. During the review period she will forward any files indicating fraud to the AG’s office. The membership office has four full time employees and one temporary worker.
The review comes after former membership employee Asa Cunningham falsified membership cards for three of her sister’s children and falsified a membership card for one of her adopted children. She was charged with four counts of tampering with public records and one count of false pretenses. She withdrew her plea of not guilty and plead guilty to all charges and arranged a plea deal to serve one weekend in jail and pay restitution in the amount of $250 per count, $200 in fines and court costs, according to court documents. She has already served her time in jail.
“The fact that she did it once and admitted to it, I mean she’s been charged and plead, twice, then that brings into question everything she’s done,” Patterson said. “So it’s just a good practice to go ahead and look at everything she’s done, whether you know her intent or not.”
Due to the sensitive information contained within each individual’s membership file, Oberly said she is very careful as to who can review the files. She is hoping to grow the membership staff to six fulltime employees in the future.