With only 10 months left in her term as chairwoman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Herminia Frias has been suspended from her duties for 12 months.
After 13 hours of hearings and deliberations Wednesday, the Tribal Council determined that Frias had violated the tribe's ethics policy. It appears Frias will retain her title as chairwoman.
Frias was sanctioned for six violations of the tribe's ethics ordinance, but she is preparing a legal appeal. Meanwhile, she said she wants the tribe to move forward.
"I still have faith in the people and I hope the employees continue to do a good job and serve our tribal members," she said Thursday. "I really worked hard to stabilize the government and it's very hurtful that all of this is going on and that there's such a disruption that the community may not get the level of service that they need."
The chairwoman originally was accused of 22 violations by Vice-Chairman Peter Yucupicio and six other council members. Frias called the move a "power play." Yucupicio did not return calls for comment.
The political battle has centered on the separation of powers in the tribal government. Frias has been serving both as the executive branch and as a part of the legislative branch. Now, the complaining council members want her to gain their authorization before using her executive powers.
According to Frias' chief of staff, Pilar Thomas, the charges that resulted in suspensions were:
● Failure to consult with the tribal council regarding the appointment of the director of finance, Michelle Aros.
● Failure to carry out two council resolutions to reinstate some fired employees.
● Refusing to allow council treasurer Francisco Valencia to view financial records of the tribe.
● Freezing the budget without council approval.
The charges that resulted in reprimands were violating the fiscal-management ordinance by not demanding monthly financial updates and improperly designating signature authority.
The council could have given Frias a vote of no confidence, removing her from office, but didn't have the eight votes needed, Frias said. She said the tribe took away her cell phone and denied her access to government offices.
Frias plans to file an appeal in the tribal court system by the end of the week. She said she didn't receive due process because the complaint should have been heard by an independent panel.
"I told the council: 'You've given me zero justice and if you did it to me, how can we believe that you won't do that to any tribal member? How can they have faith that justice will be served?' "
More than 1,000 tribal member who work for the government and the casinos attended a meeting Thursday morning to be briefed on the council's decision and to ask questions of tribal leaders, said Wendell Long, CEO of the casinos.
Frias' suspension won't affect operations at Casino of the Sun and Casino del Sol, he said.
Frias said she hasn't been getting the information she needs to effectively oversee the casinos, which finance most of the tribal operations and services.
"I wanted to see what kind of day-to-day spending they're doing out there because I had concerns about frivolous spending," she said. "That's money we're taking away from our dental clinic or our elders."
Long denied there are any financial problems at the casino.
"Our revenue and profit are drastically exceeding budget and our margins are higher than ever," Long said. The casinos passed their required external audits with flying colors, he added.
Long, who oversees casino operations and reports to the tribal council, attributed the casinos' success to the new management team and "thanks to the hard work of each and every employee."
A former chief financial officer of the casinos came to Frias' defense, saying Vice-Chairman Yucupicio once had a closed-door conversation with her about the tribe's leadership.
"One of the things he said to me was a woman should not be in a position of leadership in the tribe, and if it was up to him and others on the board it will always be run by men," said Kristie Ellis, who left the casinos in January after a year.
She said she was shocked because Frias "is one of the most outstanding businesswomen I have ever been around. I have seen nothing but ethical behavior on her part as well as Pilar Thomas. I think they serve as role models for female members of the tribe. They have done everything they can do to further the tribe economically and they are really progressive thinkers and problem solvers."
Kelly Presnell / arizona daily star 2004
Did you know . . .
At age 31, Herminia Frias was selected in June 2004 as the Pascua Yaqui tribal chairwoman.
She became the first woman selected to serve as the Yaquis' tribal leader.