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HomeCommunityThree Osage Congressmen speak at town hall event in Pawhuska

Three Osage Congressmen speak at town hall event in Pawhuska

Congressmen bring up need for new equipment at Nation’s fitness centers, remaining ARPA funding and needed amendments to laws addressing board member appointments, special sessions, leasing and subpoenas

Osage Nation Congressman Eli Potts, along with colleagues Joe Tillman and John Maker, hosted a Jan. 8 town hall in Pawhuska.

Maker provided the opening prayer and the three Congressmen gave updates on what they will be working on for future Congressional sessions. About 80 individuals attended the Sunday event at the Pawhuska Community Center.

Tillman, who uses the Pawhuska Fitness Center, said he would like the facility to receive new workout equipment, especially considering Hominy and Fairfax received new facilities and equipment in recent years. “We’ve got a fitness center here that’s basically had the same equipment for 20 years, it’s horrible and it’s been unaddressed and it’s what we use to keep us out of hospitals and those sorts of things. (I’d like to see) some new cardio equipment in the facilities here,” Tillman said,

Tillman added he wants to look at possible law changes on how the Nation’s board members are appointed “because it’s allowable to appoint a board member… so it seems like after session, the Chief appoints a board member and they’re not confirmed by Congress until the next session, so they’re in there making critical decisions and they’re not even confirmed by the Congress, it’s a bad chess play in my opinion.”

Maker told attendees legislation comes from people’s ideas and needs and encouraged them to contact him. “I’ve always wanted to get my ideas from the people we serve and that’s what I’ve always done and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” he said. “We’re here today to hear from you, I’m not here to talk about myself, I want to hear from you and what your issues are, concerns are and we’re going to address them the best we can and report back to the Congress what happened here today and we’re going to go forth in this new year.”

Potts said he would like to look at changes to the Nation’s subpoena law that compels witness testimony before Congress or one of its standing committees. “Currently the subpoena law states if a new Congress is seated, the subpoena expires and so one bill I would like to move forward with actually punts that to the next Congress. It makes the next Congress vote at least to dismiss any subpoenas that may be outstanding so that any investigation that Congress is doing doesn’t automatically die.”  

“Next is the prohibition against the Nation entering into leases for less than fair market value. One thing we’ve seen with the Nation pretty regularly at this regular rate is leases are entered into by sub-entities of the Nation for a dollar for years, so we’re leasing to ourselves. That’s benefitting in a way, but that’s also selling ourselves short,” Potts said, adding he would like to explore amending the Nation’s special session law. “Currently the law reads we can be called into a special session to address a topic, which I believe leads to a Congress called into a legislative session to address topics that maybe Congress has no intention of addressing … So, I’ll be proposing legislation that says if we’re called into a legislative session, it will be specific to a piece of legislation to be considered that way that legislative member will have already said ‘this is a priority of Congress.’”

In his comments, Maker briefly described the special legislation process as Congress was slated to meet for a special session starting Jan. 10 and noted there are debates on spending bills as others, including him, have voiced concerns that money should be spent on other causes, especially for elders.   

Tillman, who ran unsuccessfully against Geoffrey Standing Bear for Principal Chief in 2022, said he voiced concerns about the spending of the federal COVID-19 relief funding distributed to the Nation over the past year. In 2020 and 2021, the Nation appropriated millions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding and American Rescue Plan Act funding on project endeavors including the Harvest Land farming facilities and the Butcher House operations in Hominy. Tillman said he is concerned the spending happened too fast and the Nation will incur additional cost burdens to keep the new projects running.

“I think we’re down to about $6 million left (of ARPA funding) … And so my fear was that all these new projects – we got into a building facilities cycle, purchasing cycle of facilities – and not a plan to sustain those moving forward. It’s going to take employees, if you go build something, do the math, it’s going to take money to sustain it and keep it going. We didn’t have to spend this money, we didn’t have to obligate it until 2024, we didn’t have to spend it until 2026 … and it’s going to be a concern because our casinos only squeeze out so much juice,” Tillman said. “And now we’ve got big shoes to fill going forward and are these projects good? Are they worthy? If you look at the long list, they’ll benefit us, yes they will, especially here in the area, but the lack of planning and how they’re going to sustain themselves has always been my issue.”

The Nation received nearly $45 million in 2020 CARES Act funds and about $108 million in ARPA funding the following year. Standing Bear’s administration formed a COVID-19 task force that considered and developed endeavors to be funded with the pandemic relief funds, starting with the CARES Act money. In 2021, the Seventh ON Congress approved legislation requiring all federal and non-tribal funds to be appropriated by the Legislative Branch. As a result, Congress then started approving separate appropriation bills for projects and endeavors funded with ARPA money.

The town hall event also came approximately one month after an ON Gaming Commission report on three years of Osage Casinos management expenditures became public after the Eighth ON Congress voted to reclassify the 1,500-plus page confidential report as a public document.

In further examination of the casino management expenses and expenditure policies, the Congressional Commerce, Gaming and Land Committee is scheduled to meet for three days of public hearings with gaming officials and those who previously served in gaming official capacities Feb. 7-9.

In the meantime, the three Congressmen commented on the report and told attendees they would address the situation as allowed by law.

“We must approach this with a sense of seriousness and a sense of urgency to address the concerns,” Potts said. “There are many entities that are looking at this that feel it needs to be addressed and we are just one of them and I’d like to take a moment and publicly say this isn’t anything that myself, Congressman Tillman, Congressman Maker have done. This was an action of Congress to make (the ONGC report) public. All I did was post it online so everyone could have means and access to see it and I posted 10 of the most offensive things that I saw.”

Maker said he was “outraged just like anyone else would be” when he heard the report and further said he was “disappointed because we as a Congress entrusted all of our gaming executives, all of our Gaming Enterprise Board, all of our gaming commissioners to take care of our industry and it’s not up to the Congress to monitor day-to-day activities in our gaming industry. If you want to read the (Osage) Constitution and look up the Congress, it’s in there and tells you what we can do … We’re going to do whatever we can within our rules and our authority to address what’s been going on.”

Tillman said the Gaming Enterprise Board is responsible for the day-to-day gaming operations and in charge of the Osage Casino CEO and management and added the Nation’s Gaming Commission is oversight for the gaming operations. He then briefly recapped an earlier effort by the Congressional Commerce, Gaming and Land Committee to review the gaming management expenses which were resisted, prompting a 2022 Attorney General’s opinion stating Congress does have the right to review expenses within the gaming board’s control. As a result of the opinion, the Gaming Commission report was developed after another Congressional request was made for the expense information.

“When we received that evidence, our suspicions came true,” Tillman recalled. “So here we sit and I get calls from Osage people that need a shower chair, I get calls from people who need children’s clothing and they see these receipts – $700 lunches and if you follow the timeline … Fifteen hundred pages, if you want to wade through them and look at them, they’ll break your heart and that’s our money, that’s your money.”

For more information on the Legislative Branch, filed legislative bills/ resolutions, session and committee meetings, visit: https://www.osagenation-nsn.gov/who-we-are/legislative-branch

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Benny Polaccahttps://osagenews.org
Benny Polacca started at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter and has covered various stories and events impacting the Osage Nation and Osage people. Polacca is part of the News team awarded the Native American Journalist Association’s Elias Boudinot Free Press Award in 2014 and other NAJA Media Awards and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter awards for news coverage and photography. Polacca is an Arizona State University graduate and participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota. He previously worked at The Forum newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. region as the weeknight reporter.
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