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Three Affiliated Tribes’ Mark Fox administration recipient of Black Hole Award

This is the first ever tribal government recipient of the Black Hole Award

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair, jodispottedbear@gmail.com
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Specialist, 317-920-4785, zberg@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is giving its annual Black Hole Award to the Mark Fox Administration of the Three Affiliated Tribes for a litany of transparency issues, including alleged violations of the tribe’s own constitution and bylaws.

The Black Hole Award highlights the most heinous violations of the public’s right to know and is awarded each year during Sunshine Week. This marks the first time this award has been given to a tribal government.

“The scope and scale of the lack of transparency by the Three Affiliated Tribes sets it apart from the very strong contenders for this year's Black Hole Award,” said Shannon Shaw Duty, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member, Osage News editor and Osage tribal citizen. “This case appears to be a prime case study in how secrecy regarding use of public funds undermines faith in government.”

The Fox Administration received two nominations from citizens of Three Affiliated Tribes, also referred to as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. TAT’s lack of compliance with the tribal constitution’s financial disclosure rules is longstanding and ongoing, said Howard Goldberg, SPJ FOI Committee member and retired AP New York bureau chief. “Officers of the North Dakota-based Three Affiliated Tribes have erected a stunning wall of secrecy around how they spend the hundreds of millions of dollars a year they receive in tax revenue, oil and gas royalties, and income from their large casino and hotel in Fort Berthold.”

Although TAT Constitution and Bylaws states that money spent from the Tribal Business Council fund is a matter of public record, citizens were not provided with a copy of the TAT’s 2018 audit or any other audit upon request, according to the nomination materials. Citizens received a 2018 copy through a leak, when it was discovered that the auditing firm issued two adverse opinions and four disclaimed opinions. Furthermore, to the public’s knowledge, the tribe has not conducted an annual audit since 2018, despite the requirement in the TAT Constitution and Bylaws.

“It has been my experience that tribal governments will pass code as a way to save face in the public eye,” said Angel Ellis, SPJ FOI Committee member, Native American Journalists Association board member, Mvskoke Media director and citizen of the Muscogee Nation. “It is willful deceit when they refuse to comply with the very laws they create. It is a practice well taught in colonialism, and I feel like the most underrepresented communities deserve so much better than politicized power plays that protect grift and fraud.”

Beyond the alleged violations of the tribe’s own laws regarding transparency, TAT officials have also been implicated in illegal fiscal activity, which involved bribery between a contractor and tribe officials. The administration also purchased property for $90-125 million and did not inform the citizens until the deal was finalized.

“The actions of Chairman Fox and his administration come at a greater cost than can be measured in mere dollars and cents. The malfeasance, combined with efforts to hide it from their constituents amounts to a betrayal of trust,” said Donald W. Meyers, SPJ FOI Committee member and Yakima (Washington) Herald-Republic reporter. “The people of the Three Affiliated Tribes counted on Chairman Fox and his administration to act in their best interests and give them an accounting of his stewardship. Not only were resources that could have been used to benefit the people squandered, but so has trust in the government, which will likely take longer to repay than the misspent funds."

SPJ FOI Committee Chair Jodi Rave Spotted Bear is an enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes, as well as an SPJ at-large director and an SPJ Foundation Board member. Spotted Bear, who is also chair and founder of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, said, “The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation leaders undermine democracy on a daily basis while operating as an authoritarian government that represses opposition, silences citizen voices and allows for ongoing secrecy of government spending.”

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