Fourth ON Congress candidates debate during 2014 Osage News election debates

Twenty candidates running for the Fourth Osage Nation Congress participated in the 2014 Osage News General Election Candidate Debates on May 4.

The debates come nearly one month before the June 2 general election where six Congress members will be picked by voting Osages to serve on the Fourth ON Congress.

Now in its third election year of hosting candidate debates, the Osage News collected candidate questions from the public and those questions were randomly drawn from a hopper by moderators from the League of Women Voters from the Tulsa and Bartlesville offices during the event. The moderators kept track of time the candidates used for opening and closing statements, answering questions and rebutting/ following-up on questions.

With a total of 21 Congressional candidates running for office, the Osage News staff randomly drew the names of candidates to determine which debate group they would be assigned to. To evenly separate the candidate groups, there were a total of three separate groups with seven candidates in each. Each group received three questions to answer and the candidates were allowed one minute for rebuttal.

The first group debating included Dr. Ron Shaw, Anthony Whitehorn, John Star Bighorse, William “Kugee” Supernaw, Doug Cowan and Clair Wood. John Free, who is seeking his second Congressional term, was assigned to this group, but was absent from the event.

Question #1: If you are a member of Congress, did you vote to give the Osage LLC additional money in the last three years or if you’re not a member of Congress, would you have given the LLC additional money and explain your answer. – Patricia Spurrier Bright of Pawhuska

Whitehorn said he wouldn’t give the LLC more money after learning of its status and money losses. “I would first have to understand the losses that occurred in that business. I think our responsibility and our charge and fiduciary duty as legislators is to understand how money is being allocated.”

Shaw said if he served on the Congress during the years the Congress allocated money to the LLC, he would have done a reevaluation of the entity because, “as most people feel, where did our money go? What happened to it? Not only then but even today, this week, this month, what happened? Was it simply bad luck? Was it simply the wrong people? Was it a series of bad educated guesses? The losses were so large that we have to believe that there is some other process at work until proven otherwise.” He added he would like to see a forensic audit done on the LLC.

Supernaw, who was the lone incumbent in the group, said he voted against the LLC’s requests for capital infusions for the last four years because, “it became obvious after the first year that the LLC got off on the wrong foot … The losses have been terrible … It amounts to $800 for every man, woman and child in the Osage Nation.” Supernaw also noted he recently voted for a resolution supporting the LLC’s “ability to turn things around” with a new board going forward.

Bighorse said he also would not allocate money to the LLC if he was aware of the LLC’s track record and noted, “but I am somebody who would want to look into the situation and see why we’re having losses … Am I about wanting to diversify our dollars and try to make money? Yes I am, but I’m also about putting forth studies and seeing which avenues we need to exhaust to bring in the revenue we’re looking for.”

Wood said: “I would’ve, a long time ago, asked for quarterly reports from the LLC and I would’ve stayed on top of the monetary losses by doing that … I do not think we should’ve allocated money until we knew in fact how much money was being lost. Making sure our money’s being spent appropriately is a very important thing.”

Cowan said he, “would not vote to give the LLC any money, I think they need to be held accountable for the money we’ve already given – it’s the tribe’s money, I can’t believe we keep putting the money into something that’s a no-win situation … What did we finance that we’re $16, $17 million dollars in debt? That’s a lot of money, that could’ve went towards health, education, it could’ve went towards the casino.”

Question #2: Over the past year, there has been considerable controversy within the Nation over the question of confidentiality. Please explain your thoughts on where the line between proprietary and public information is properly drawn. – Elizabeth Homer of Alexandria, Va.

Shaw referred to the Nation’s gaming operations where public and proprietary information is an issue regarding the status of the Osage Casino’s expansion plans and current operating plans. He noted a recent situation where political chatter on the Facebook group page Osage Community for Responsible Citizenry questioned the costs for the new Osage Casino Hotel expansion projects at Ponca City and Skiatook, whether it was legal and whether Congress was notified of the spending costs beforehand. In this case, Facebook chatter and Congress members who commented on the issue said construction costs on the two casinos totaled $50 million, but the legislative body later learned non-construction costs associated with the casino projects cost an additional $30 million.

“I believe we need to have a loosening of that classification to allow the Congress to allow more detailed information to be received and reviewed to provide proper oversight,” Shaw said. “Thirty million’s a lot of money, how could we not know about that? My plan is to be able to work with the Gaming Enterprise Board to determine what’s confidential – let’s put our heads together and find out what we need to know about what they can release.”

Supernaw said he is concerned with the way the public records law is written because gaming board officials, for example, could spend a significant amount of money and not disclose all spending details if the information is considered proprietary. “They can put you in debt for hundreds of millions of dollars and it’s illegal to tell you, they mortgaged the future of you, your children and your grandchildren. And you know who doesn’t know what’s going on? Just you. Our competitors know you can’t build a hotel without somebody knowing about it … I think more of what we do should be made public. Now there are certain things like timing, the launching of a unique innovation that nobody knows about. That could hurt you. But we seldom ever are faced with that situation.”

Bighorse passed on the question stating he wanted more information on the topic before answering.

Wood, currently employed as a background check investigator for the ON Gaming Commission, defended the issue of protecting proprietary information to avoid tipping off the area tribes whose gaming operations are competitors to the seven-property Osage Casino enterprise.

“That confidential/ proprietary information that we have going over the gaming (commission) and Gaming Enterprise Board – it’s not to keep things hidden from you, I mean financials are out there, a lot of times is to keep what we’re trying to come up with, ideas that we’re coming up with, ideas that we’re wanting to do for new ventures or how are we going to do a new casino … And we don’t want our competitors coming into that … We don’t want them to have the upper hand knowing exactly what we’re planning on doing, so that I kind of have the other view from and we want and we want to have that shock, we don’t want them to know before it happens because it takes away from our edge.”

In her rebuttal time, Wood addressed the $30 million at issue in the casino/ hotel projects. “A lot of that $30 million that was unknown was for ‘soft costs’ – we had sheets, beds, pillows – those things weren’t included in the expansion, the expansion was for the construction … I do agree with the fact that the Congress and the Executive Branch should have more knowledge as to where the financials are going with various programs that have the confidentiality.”

Cowan said, “I think some of it (confidentiality of information) is fine, especially up here on the hill. The gaming deal? I believe we need to know what they’re doing. I mean it is our casino. They should be putting some stuff out to Congress – I’m not saying it has to be public – I’m thinking the Congress needs to know about it, the Chief and the Assistant Chief needs to know what’s going on and how that money’s being allocated and why it’s being spent that way. Those are our casinos, they don’t belong to them other people, they’re ours, they’re on our property.”

Whitehorn said he believes the reformed Osage government’s intent is to bring more transparency to all Osage people. “But we as legislators, we need to know because we would have to approve their (gaming board and officials’) annual plan. I can’t imagine someone saying ‘we want you all to approve $100 million but we can’t tell you how we’re going to spend it.’ I couldn’t operate a business like that … The proprietary information, I can understand if we have some new innovation … but what we’re talking about is our financial future of our children and our tribe, so I think there needs to be less protection … Our people deserve to know what’s happening with our Nation and our money.”

Question #3: Irrespective of any judgment as to Chief Red Eagle’s guilt or innocence, do you feel that the Congress was justified in bringing charges against him? Do you think this has been done properly? – Addison Jump of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Supernaw was one of the 12 Congress members who voted that Chief Red Eagle was guilty on five of the six allegations of wrongdoing during the Nation’s first-ever removal trial held for an elected Osage official in January. He also heard witness testimony during the Select Committee of Inquiry investigative meetings held mostly in executive sessions last year to collect evidence when the committee considered a total of 15 allegations that were reduced to the six considered during trial.

“This has been a very unfortunate situation that happened in our Nation and it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make and participate in because John and I were friends since boyhood … I heard everything and it was obvious that it had to be done,” Supernaw said. “I sat through all the testimonies … I think the outcome would’ve been the same in any other situation, any type of trial.”

Bighorse initially passed on the question, but used his rebuttal time and said: “I understand the situation we’ve gone through. I do wish it can be in the past and we can move forward, but I’d like to see a change in the way – I’m going to call the hyper-play field – that was built and that needs to be changed if we’re going to do things right.”

Wood said: “I do believe that it was a travesty that our tribe has to go through, however I also have to believe that accountability is No. 1, we need to hold everyone accountable no matter who they are. I think that’s exactly what Congress did … I do, however, also think that the attorneys [representing the Congress] were very inappropriate in the way they treated Chief Red Eagle. They continually badgered him and it was very sad to watch an elder for the Osage Nation be really ridiculed like that.”

“I believe they acted in the right manner and people are to be held accountable,” said Cowan “If they’re (elected officials) not doing right, they should be held accountable for it. It isn’t just a bad day, it’s a bad day for the Red Eagle family.”

Whitehorn said: “I do think the Congress did follow the lay of the law to the best of their abilities it was a very hard time for our Nation and our people to see one of our elders go through that type of situation … I think we need to look at ways to improve that process … The process of the legislative being the actual investigator and then the jury – I think that needs to be looked into and changed to where there’s a different party that brings the allegations forward or investigates and then the Congress needs to be the jury at that point.”

Shaw said, “I do believe the Osage Nation Congress was justified in bringing those charges, absolutely, I don’t think there’s ever been any question in my mind … Is the (removal) process proper? I believe it was followed properly as laid out in the constitution however it’s flawed – the same reasons Mr. Whitehorn mentioned – I don’t believe that six members of the Select Committee should also serve on half of the Congressional jury that made the final decision on that.”