Judy Knight-Frank, the embattled leader of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe who has been on administrative leave pending allegations of fiscal wrongdoing, attempted to regain her chairman’s seat at a raucous tribal council meeting in November.
But following hours of finger-pointing and accusations during the Nov. 7 session at government headquarters in Towaoc, Knight-Frank’s demand that she be reinstated was rejected when four of the seven members of the tribal council walked out in protest.
“It was supposed to be a day to honor newly elected council members, but it got out of hand,” said Manuel Heart, one of the councilmen who left. He would not elaborate, saying that “it was a internal tribal matter.”
Council members Elayne Atcitty, Ernest House and Selwyn Whiteskunk also left the tribal council chambers in a tactic meant to deny Knight-Frank the quorum required for decisions to be made.
In July 2002, the then-tribal council voted to put Knight-Frank on administrative leave until she was cleared of allegations of financial improprieties. In May of that year, Knight-Frank was indicted by a federal grand jury on felony charges of tax evasion, theft and embezzlement. The charges allege that while chair between 1996 and 1998 she paid herself more than $274,000 in payroll advances but never paid them back and did not report the income.
She has pleaded not-guilty to the 11-count indictment, but so far no trial date has been set, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver.
In her place, the tribal council appointed Vice Chair Harold Cuthair as acting chairman, a move that Knight-Frank attempted to overturn at the Nov. 7 meeting.
It was meant to be a swearing-in ceremony for House and Art Cuthair, who had won seats in an Oct. 10 election. (See sidebar.) Some 80 Ute and non-tribal local citizens attended the event, including dignitaries from Montezuma County and the Southern Ute tribe. But the meeting quickly became divisive after Knight-Frank arrived, to the delight of her many supporters, and sat at the helm designated for the chairman.
“She took her seat and things began to get blown out of proportion, with lots of hostile accusations and finger-pointing,” recalled Quinton Jacket, the chairman of the election board, who attended the inauguration.
Weathering a storm of protest from opponents, Knight-Frank adamantly defended her claim to the seat, arguing that putting her on administrative leave was unjust and in violation of the tribe’s constitution because the federal charges were only allegations.
The tribe’s constitution states that leaders can be removed by vote for felonious and ethical violations, “but what those guidelines are is not real specific and therefore needs revision,” Jacket said. “I think it is important to emphasize that the Ute tribe did not charge (Judy) with these alleged crimes. It is a case brought by the federal government, not by the tribe.”
Knight-Frank has not responded to written questions and interview requests.
At the meeting she implied that she had become a scapegoat for past mismanagement of tribal affairs, witnesses said.
The federal indictment against her spells out how she allegedly took out loans, in the form of payroll advances, from tribal coffers during several tribal-chair terms, but never paid them back, and did not report the income on bank-loan applications or to the Internal Revenue Service.
“She said that she had been unfairly labeled and has become the black sheep,” Jacket said. “She made accusations that past members of the tribal council took out loans and never paid them back.”
Knight-Frank and House are both popular leaders and have traded off the chairmanship for the last two decades. Knight-Frank beat House in the 2000 election by one vote.
Bureau of Indian Affairs officials reported that an emergency meeting was held by the council the following day to swear in Art Cuthair and House. Harold Cuthair was again appointed acting chair at that meeting.
Knight-Frank’s term is up in October 2004, as are the terms of council members Atcitty, Whiteskunk and Harold Cuthair.