Government , Health

Congressional committee hires law firm to look into alleged misuse of health and education funds

It is no secret that Osage tribal members had unrestricted use of their Health Benefit Fund cards for the 2019 calendar year.  

The Congressional Affairs Committee met on Dec. 20 to discuss the fund and the continuing problems associated with it. First, they discussed that tribal members who misused their cards have not been identified. Congresswoman Shannon Edwards, who has been the sponsor of the health benefit fund every year since its inception in 2008, said after a conversation with Attorney General Clint Patterson she got the impression they were having difficulty identifying the individual cases of misuse.

She said Patterson was drafting a report as to why there haven’t been cases filed in tribal court.

“It’s always been very clear what the purpose of that benefit is for and it’s for health use,” Edwards said. “I believe that money should be repaid because it impacts all of us.”

She said tribal members were using their cards for items such as makeup and hotel rooms. Congressman John Maker said the misuse of the card has happened prior to 2019 because he heard reports of tribal members spending their cards at Walgreens on non-health related items.

Edwards said that wouldn’t have been possible because the previous third-party companies, Mutual Assurance Administrators and HealthSmart, gave the Congress monthly reports so they could track spending and their cards were encoded with a magnetic strip that prevented spending on non-health related items.

“Well, it was still going on,” Maker said.

Crowe Dunlevy

Edwards and Congressman Eli Potts discussed accounting reports that showed line-item shifting in the amount of nearly $135,000 out of the health benefit fund by the Executive Branch to pay for contractors to conduct a health survey for Strategic Planning purposes. There was also money shifted out of the fund to pay for drug testing.

Edwards said she made a complaint to the AG’s office about the improper withdrawals and followed up multiple times in November. She met with Treasurer Jim Littleton and asked him to put the money back in the health benefit fund “and to my knowledge that hasn’t happened.”

“The Assistant AG said the Chief of Staff (Jason Zaun) thought it was an appropriate place to pull it out of,” she said.

Edwards and Potts both, at different times, motioned and withdrew their motions to hire legal counsel to look into the situation. Congresswoman Paula Stabler asked what the purpose of the attorneys would be, an investigation or a lawsuit? Edwards said she wants legal counsel to work with the Speaker to find a resolution.

“The health benefit fund is not the cookie jar, and neither is the higher education scholarship,” Edwards said. “I want to be clear that these direct assistance funds are used for direct assistance.”

By the end of the meeting, Edwards motioned to hire law firm Crowe Dunlevy and not to exceed $40,000 for the contract, unless authorized by the Congressional Affairs committee. 

“Pursuant to the Osage Congressional rules, I move that the Congressional Affairs Committee approve hiring Crowe Dunlevy law firm or other outside legal counsel if Crowe Dunlevy is conflicted out, to pursue the return of funds improperly withdrawn from the direct assistance revolving funds, including but not limited to the health benefit fund and the higher education scholarship fund and funds transferred out of direct assistance and into and out of ‘salaries and wages line item’ and ‘employee benefits line item’ without appropriation/authorization in law for another purpose.”

Her motion passed with four “yes” votes coming from Edwards, Congresswomen Maria Whitehorn and Paula Stabler, and Congressman Eli Potts. The lone “no” vote came from Congressman RJ Walker, who said he felt other avenues for information should be pursued before hiring an outside law firm.

Potts said he has sent numerous emails for months with little to no reply.  

Reaction

Their vote was not taken as a mere search for information. Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear responded via email on Dec. 26.

“It is unfortunate to learn during this holiday season of the Motion made by Congresswoman Edwards and supported by the Congressional Affairs Committee to retain the law firm of Crowe Dunlevy to take legal action against the Osage Nation Treasurer, the Controller, and Executive Branch regarding baseless allegations of improper line-item shifting and misuse of the Health Benefit Fund and Scholarship Fund,” Standing Bear wrote. “There has been no wrongdoing by the Treasurer, the Controller, or the Executive Branch in the use of these funds. These allegations are fully denied, and the accusations are false.”

He wrote they have seen “this kind of destructive action” before and that it was from a familiar source and couldn’t come at a worse time. He said they are facing challenges from the State of Oklahoma and the federal bureaucracy and need to stay united.

“The threat of legal action from the Congress arose without consultation with me. It sounds as if it was well planned by what I heard on the recording of the Congressional Affairs Committee. It should be no surprise then, that the Congress has now created a wall which requires legal counsel present at all communications between our branches of government,” he wrote. “When legal counsel is not available, do not expect to communicate with those who you threaten. You or your attorneys may communicate with us through General Counsel Terry Mason Moore. Do not expect for those who you have threatened to appear at any meetings with the Congress or its Committees without legal counsel.”

In response to questions about the allegations, he said that Littleton and Fox are both licensed CPAs and can read the law and follow it.