Federal aid to Lumbees spent on travel, conventions
Posted June 3, 2008 5:36 p.m. EDT
Updated June 3, 2008 8:47 p.m. EDT
Lumberton, N.C. — Willie Locklear lives near Lumberton in a former storage building that has holes in the roof and floor. He has to hang plastic sheeting on the side of his house to fend off the wind and rain.
The ramshackle house Rachel Maynor lives in near St. Pauls is almost a century old and has no bathroom.
Locklear and Maynor are members of the Lumbee tribe and have asked the tribal government for housing assistance.
"I have been trying to get a home for about 15 years," said Maynor, 73, a widow on a fixed income. "(They say) they can't spend that much money, but they can spend it to go to Hawaii."
Ten tribal council members attended an Indian education conference last October at the four-star Hilton hotel on Waikiki Beach. In addition to travel, hotel and meal expenses, registration for the conference cost the tribe $4,000.
Credit card statements provided by a council member who asked to remain anonymous show that tribal officials also have traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., San Antonio, Texas, and Alaska in the past year.
The charges include a limo service in Colorado and $500 for a hotel room in Florence, S.C., which is less than an hour's drive from the Lumbee community in Robeson County.
Council member Wendy Moore-Graham said the trips were paid for with money the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development gives to the tribe each year. This year's grant was $13 million, but HUD recently cut funding to the Lumbees by $1.7 million. The tribe shut down its housing rehabilitation program on Monday with more than 1,000 tribal members still on the waiting list for assistance.
Although HUD allows the tribe to budget for housing-related travel in its annual appropriation, Moore-Graham said she boycotted the Hawaii trip because several officials went who never attended any local education meetings.
"If they don't care about the children here in Robeson County when the meetings were here in Robeson County, why should they care when it's in Hawaii?" she said.
Randy Lewis is a Lumbee activist who has led protests against tribal officials' handling of federal housing dollars.
"They travel everywhere with no regard to people living in Third-World conditions," Lewis said.
WRAL made several attempts to speak with tribal Chairman Jimmy Goins and other top Lumbee officials, but they refused to comment, referring all questions to Alex Baker, the tribe's public relations manager, who issued a written statement.
"All travel reflected on these (credit card) statements was either to HUD-sponsored events or events sanctioned or approved by HUD prior to any travel occurring," the statement said.
Baker said it was essential for Lumbee officials to attend the conferences to "have a seat at the table."
For years, the tribe has sought full federal recognition, which could bring $80 million in annual federal aid. Under the Lumbee Recognition Act of 1956, the tribe was denied services from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs but was recognized as a tribe, which has allowed it to receive limited federal assistance.
WRAL also contacted HUD several times for a response to the Lumbee travel expenses. A spokeswoman said she would look into the matter and provide a response last week, but no HUD official has commented yet.
Moore-Graham said the tribe's travel budget is tapped out with four months left in the fiscal year. Meanwhile, at least 10 tribal officials are booked for a trip to the National Congress of American Indians conference in Reno, Nev., this week, she said.
"Reno? I really don't know where they're going to get the money," she said.
Lewis questioned the need to send so many tribal members to each conference.
"One or two would suffice, and then the one or two would come back to Robeson County and they would have a meeting with the others," he said.
Locklear said tribal leaders should spend less time jetting to distant cities and more time visiting Lumbees in the area to address local problems.
"The trip they took to Hawaii would definitely have bought me a trailer," he said.