'We've got to find that money:' NC tribe accused of misusing taxpayer funds
Posted February 20, 2014 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated February 20, 2014 5:56 p.m. EST
Clinton, N.C. — North Carolina’s Coharie Indian Tribe has received millions of dollars in federal funding over the years, including stimulus money for housing. One tribal member is questioning the group’s finances, accusing it of nepotism, misspending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, forging checks and not documenting expenses.
Based in Harnett and Sampson counties, the Coharies have fewer than 3,000 members and are one of eight North American tribes in the state. Randy Davis says he holds deep family ties to the tribe and feels deeply divided over its heritage.
“I wouldn’t want to be part of that tribe,” Davis said. “The real tribe is the Croatan Indians.”
That resentment, in part, pushed Davis to dig into Coharie Intra-Tribal Council dealings. He recorded meetings, uploaded the videos to YouTube and questioned how federal money was spent.
For years, the tribe has spent U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant money to rehabilitate low-income homes, provide down payments, and pay for administrative staff and upkeep at the headquarters in Clinton. Tribal leaders also used HUD money to buy a local restaurant, with the eventual goal of reselling it or turning it into senior housing.
Coharie board member Maretta Brewington followed Davis' lead in questioning the tribe's handling of grants and admits that she has “been known to get under their skin.”
“You have taxpayers paying taxes and government money being spent for people that are not doing their job,” she said.
During a 2012 meeting, Coharie Sampson Board Chairman Vinnie Bryant talked about the thousands of dollars in missing HUD money.
“As of 2010, there's approximately $700,000 unaccounted for. I'd be kind of curious to see where that unaccounted money ended up, whether it's canceled checks … We've got to find that money. Otherwise, I'm going to be lynched,” he said.
Bryant now tells WRAL Investigates that he was half-joking about the unanswered questions.
“I’m held accountable to the community. If I have a community member stating that, it’s my duty to the community to try to dig into where that funding went,” Bryant said.
During the meeting, fellow member Isabell Freeman Elliott urged the board to stop dwelling on questions of missing money.
“We keep digging up old stuff. We need to move forward. We keep digging and digging until we dig ourselves right out of a tribe,” she said.
Freeman Elliott clarified her comments to WRAL Investigates, saying she simply wanted professional auditors to deal with money questions, not board members.
A HUD monitoring report confirms a laundry list of problems with federal housing money in 2010, including forged checks, money spent without documentation and no-bid contracts.
“Personally, then, I do not think there was enough checks and balances in place, no,” said Bryant, who took his leadership role after the 2010 money questions.
Current Coharie leaders say they addressed the problems by firing administrator Elizabeth Maynor and adding new layers of accountability. Greg Jacobs took over the books in 2011.
“There were some flaws in policies, a right many flaws,” Jacobs said. “From day one when I got here, it was to put the people back in control of the organization.”
After the critical audit, HUD ordered the Coharie to institute new protocols and pay back more than $50,000. Tribal leaders contend initial allegations of missing money were overblown.
“The auditor (came), and if he’s an auditor at all, he’s going to catch that kind of money missing. You just can’t miss $700,000,” said tribal leader Freddie Carter.
With penalties, federal money slowed, but never stopped flowing. The Coharie Intra-Tribal Council now receives a little more than $500,000 a year, but its critics aren't going away.
“I think there needs to be a complete overhaul of the staff and the organization,” Brewington said.
Tribal leaders say they will learn from past financial errors and hope to change the focus to the future.
“I love this tribe. This tribe was having problems, and I’ve done everything I could to put it back on its feet,” Jacobs said.
As the Coharie tribe tries to move forward, the questions keep coming. Tribal leaders say they have received calls from the governor's office, the attorney general's office and Indian Affairs.
The latest HUD monitoring report shows the federal government still has open questions about the Coharie's handling of taxpayer money. The ongoing questions focus on a lack of documentation and unclear increases in construction contracts. Tribal leaders say they continue to address those issues.