As chief of the Wampanoag Nation, Tribe of Grayhead, Wolf Band, Dale Nolan Stevens was infuriated when a police officer cited him in 2001 for having an unregistered vehicle and driving without a license.
The Vernal man insisted that his tribal license plate was legal and only the tribe had authority over him. He became more incensed when Uintah County Attorney JoAnn Stringham proceeded to prosecute him.
So he turned to the Western Arbitration Council - and in 2004 won a whopping $250 million award against her.
Stringham is not the only Utah public servant hit with a purported judgment from the Vernal-based tribe or its associates. The following amounts are allegedly due and payable from Uintah County officials: $3 million from Deputy Sheriff John Laursen, $300,720 from Sheriff Rick Hawkins and $300,000 from Justice Court Judge G.A. Petry.
The catch, according to lawsuits now filed against the tribe and the arbitration council, is that it's all a sham.
Lawsuits contend the Tribe of Grayhead, Wolf Band is a fake tribe whose members are not legally recognized as American Indians. The suits also allege the arbitration council, which was created by the tribe's "war chief," exists to conduct "mailbox arbitration" to harass perceived enemies.
Although Stevens has never collected a cent from her, Stringham said fighting the claim is time consuming.
"What disrupts my life is that we're busy and we're trying to do our jobs in a fair manner and they start throwing paperwork at you that's just painful to read," she said. "They want to make it so difficult for you."
How "mailbox arbitration" works: Lawsuits allege the scheme by WAC works this way:
WAC officials send notices to their targets - including prosecutors, judges, child welfare workers and financial institutions - announcing a claim has been filed against them, usually for large amounts of money. The notices, full of misspellings and grammatical errors, allege the recipient has broken a contract or violated someone's civil rights.
The letters' recipients are falsely informed that they earlier agreed to submit to binding arbitration and have just days to respond or lose by default.
After the time period expires, WAC grants an award to the claimant, who uses a WAC document to file a lien against the target or files a civil suit seeking payment.
The claimants apparently have collected little or no money. However, they allegedly have damaged credit records, encumbered property and wasted court time.
In the past seven years, people connected to the tribe or the council have recorded hundreds of millions of dollars in "awards" against the city of Vernal, its prosecutor, a Duchesne County Justice Court judge, 3rd District Judge Tyrone Medley, Utah County Attorney Kay Bryson and others.
Officials with WAC and the tribe adamantly deny they are doing anything illegal and insist the law backs them up.
Impounded truck, big award: In 2004, James Burbank of Vernal filed a federal lawsuit seeking $375 million in damages from Uintah County officials. Burbank had been cited the year before for having an unregistered vehicle.
Burbank, who claims to be a member of the Grayhead Tribe, later got the $300,720 WAC award against the sheriff and the $300,000 award against Petry. Burbank complained officials ignored a letter by purported chief Stevens stating they were required to return Burbank's impounded truck.
The "debtors" are fighting back. Uintah County has filed a counterclaim seeking to wipe out Burbank's awards and get a declaration that the Tribe of Grayhead, Wolf Band is not an Indian tribe.
Uintah County's evidence includes an affidavit from Donald Widdiss, chairman of the federally recognized Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) in Massachusetts. Widdiss says the Utah group is in no way affiliated with the Wampanoag Tribe.
U.S. District Judge John E. Conway of New Mexico is scheduled to hear arguments in the dispute today at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City.
Burbank could not be reached for comment.
Citibank "owes" $15.7 million: Curtis Richmond claims he has won a $15,739,338 award from WAC against Citibank. The California man, who describes himself as a non-Indian adopted into the Grayhead tribe, has signed other awards as a WAC arbitrator.
Citibank customers have signed their legal rights to him, Richmond explained in a telephone interview from Carlsbad, Calif., and the award represents a refund for money lost to fraudulent practices.
But the bank claims WAC has been falsely advising Citibank customers that they can avoid paying their credit card debts by using its arbitration services. Citibank has filed suit in Utah's 3rd District Court against WAC, Richmond and others.
Richmond said he will file a complaint against federal judge Conway in connection with Burbank's Uintah County case. Conway is violating a requirement to have an oath of office on file, Richmond claims.
"I'll be a whistleblower, they can't touch me," Richmond said. "This is war. When a judge acts without jurisdiction, he is guilty of treason."
Richmond also claims the Colorado Supreme Court owes him $90,000 for a WAC award.
The Citibank and Burbank lawsuits are just two of several cases involving WAC and tribal members in several states. Last April, a federal grand jury in Kansas indicted a Newton couple on fraud charges, alleging they had obtained a fraudulent document from the "so-called Western Arbitration Council" awarding them more than $2 million.
"So get lost": One connection between the arbitration council and the tribe is Thomas Smith, listed as chief of the Ministry of Justice and chief tribal judge of the Grayhead Tribe, Wolf Band and as director of arbitration for WAC.
Smith, a Uintah Basin resident, said he helps people litigate disputes as part of his ministerial services.
In all his cases with WAC, Smith said, both sides agreed to arbitrate, and if one party failed to show up for a hearing, an award was entered by default for the other side.
Stevens, the purported tribe's chief in Vernal, also told The Salt Lake Tribune he has done nothing wrong. As for the tribe's opponents in various lawsuits, Stevens said, "They've robbed us of our rights. They are thieves. They are terrorists."
To back up his assertion that his tribe is legitimate, Stevens cites federal court cases on tribal law and a letter he sent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., asking that the Wolf Band logo and seal be registered.
In the Uintah County case, Stevens wrote in a court filing: "Indian tribes and the members of the tribal Government have sovereign immunity, they can extend that to tribal members and to non members working for or in behalf of the tribe and we do not wave that immunity, So get lost."
Using phony arbitration awards?
Government agencies and private businesses allege Utah-based
organizations are using phony arbitration awards to harass
officials with liens and lawsuits. The accused organizations:
Wampanoag Nation, Tribe of Grayhead, Wolf Band: The tribe, in existence since at least 2001, elected its council at a Provo Arby's in 2003, according to its records. It claims its members are American Indians immune to state and federal laws.
Western Arbitration Council: With post office addresses listed in Hanna and Duchesne, its director of arbitration is Uintah Basin resident Thomas Smith, a Grayhead tribal official.
The Order of White Light: Smith, its "presiding patriarch," says he organized the order in 1999. Incorporation papers from 2003 describe it as an "ecclesiastical corporation." WAC is part of the order, court documents say.