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Red Lake Nation's ban of federal official draws criticism

RED LAKE, Minn. -- Red Lake Tribal Secretary Donald Cook Sr. on Tuesday denied Chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr.'s assertion that Cook instigated the banning of the CEO of the Indian Health Service hospital at Red Lake from reservation lands.

"The issue came before the council because of numerous complaints of employees ... being terminated or removed from their positions," Cook said. "It wasn't like somebody instigated (the ban). He brought it upon himself."

Jourdain said Tuesday that news the tribe had banned CEO Mark Karzon was drawing criticism from constituents.

"I had band members for three days who were calling me, saying, 'This hurts our tribe,' " Jourdain said. "As a last -- a very, very last -- resort, the removal/banishment clause is exercised. That's usually in extreme cases of very violent criminals, people who habitually violate the rights of members."

Family connection

Cook said two of the employees Karzon allegedly disciplined were his relatives, but that did not affect his decision to ban Karzon. Rather, he based his vote on what he called the "hostile attitude" Karzon allegedly had toward his employees and the tribal council.

"The doctors, staff ... were really happy with the decision the council made because now … they don't have to watch behind their back," Cook said. "They were actually walking on eggshells (before the ban); they didn't know if they were next or who was next."

Karzon threatened retaliation if the employees complained to the tribal council, Cook said.

"He threatened them that if they came to the tribal council, even though they were tribal members, that they would be terminated," Cook said. "They were afraid to come forward and come to the council meeting to express what was going on at the hospital."

Reached Tuesday, Karzon declined to comment publicly on the matter.

During the April 8 meeting, tribal council member Roman Stately was the one to enter a motion that Karzon be banned, and Cook seconded the motion, Cook recalled.

Stately declined to comment when reached Tuesday, but previously said the ban was due to Karzon allegedly disciplining employees without just cause.

Overturning of ban unlikely

Jourdain undermined the council's authority by questioning the ban, Cook said.

"Once the council passes a resolution, he shouldn't be advocating for the person that the resolution was geared toward," he said. "Why does the chairman keep bringing this up, that (Karzon) is removed?"

Cook said Jourdain cannot unilaterally overturn the council's decision and it was unlikely the council would rescind the vote.

But Jourdain said the ban undermines the band's relationship with the federal government. Tribal council members may focus on constituents’ needs in their individual districts, Jourdain said, but he needs to think of the needs of the band as a whole.

"I have to maintain a good working relationship with federal agencies in order to provide resources, bring opportunity to the band,” Jourdain said. "I have to have a broader view than just my immediate circle of supporters or people."

Cook said that since the ban, IHS has reinstated two of the employees Karzon had reassigned.

"They heard our side of it, and they put them back in their position," Cook said.

Red Lake is holding reservation-wide elections May. 14. Cook, Jourdain and Stately are all up for re-election.

Cook said the council's decision to ban Karzon would not affect the election.

"I think it has no bearing on my re-election," Cook said.

Jourdain also said it wouldn't affect him.

"I'm just doing what I need to do to improve the health care systems at Red Lake," he said.

Tribe won't take over hospital

A process exists in which Red Lake could assume control of the IHS hospital, something 60 percent of the other federally recognized tribes in the U.S. already have done. It's called a self-governance compact, whereby the tribe would negotiate an agreement with IHS to take over the administration of the Red Lake hospital yet still receive federal money and other resources with oversight.

The IHS can take back control of the particular hospital and the funding if one of two things occurs: there's an "imminent endangerment of the public health" caused by the tribe or "gross mismanagement of the funds" given to the tribe through the compact. Tribes that enter into compacts with IHS are subject to annual federal audits.

The entire nationwide self-governance program uses about $1.5 billion, or 38 percent of the IHS budget, according to an IHS fact sheet.

However, both Cook and Jourdain said it was unlikely the tribe would move to take over the Red Lake hospital anytime soon.

"We could '638' the hospital at any time," Cook said, referring to the numerical title of the law the self-governance program is based on. "But ... I think we're probably looking at leaving it the way it is."

Jourdain also said the tribe did not plan on assuming control of the hospital.

"There's no big grand conspiracy to take over the hospital or kick IHS out, take control," he said.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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