Too Many Chiefs
If Mary Biermann believed in omens, she would have turned around and left on the spring day in 1994 when she reported for work and learned that her office at the Dallas Inter-tribal Center came with a waterfall.
As the newly hired director of the center's medical and dental clinic, Biermann arrived to find two 30-gallon drums near her desk, positioned to catch water that cascaded through the ceiling when it rained.
Biermann was using a metal wheelchair at the time--the result of a traffic accident--and the sight of electrical wires exposed in the water-damaged ceiling made her afraid she was going to be electrocuted.
The rude arrival was Biermann's introduction to a storm of problems that continues to engulf Dallas Inter-tribal Center--the only center in North Texas set up specifically to provide Native Americans with health care, job training, family counseling, food, and financial assistance.
Three years later, the roof still leaks, Biermann has resigned after serving a stint in the center's top job, and the DIC is in chaos.
A $1.5 million-a-year organization serving about 3,000 people, the DIC is funded by taxpayers through various government programs aimed at helping urbanized American Indians.
But the center has lost about one-fifth of its federal funding because it hasn't conducted the required audits of its books for the past three years. The last time anybody checked, the accounts were out of balance by about $140,000.
About a third of the center's battered storefront building on Jefferson Boulevard is blocked off, unusable because of damage from the long-suffering roof.
The board of directors that is supposed to run the DIC is in open warfare. One renegade board member has already staged an unsuccessful coup attempt and is now threatening to sue and force the center into receivership.
Two former employees have sued, claiming they were discriminated against, and one has collected an undisclosed settlement.
Though it is understaffed and strapped for cash, the center is paying three attorneys to help sort out the political squabbles and legal woes that have beset the agency.
Biermann, who served as the center's executive director for two years before resigning in May, is taking her share of the heat for the problems. But there's plenty of blame to go around. The center's board appears incapable of coming to grips with its problems, and many of the actions it has taken in the past few years were probably illegal, as the board seldom had a quorum.
Mired in a swamp of ineptitude and political infighting, it is not certain at this point whether the center will survive.
"There are problems with nonprofit governance that make problems in private companies and institutions look simple to resolve," says Bob Goodman, a Dallas attorney who is representing a former employee who's suing the center. "The Dallas Inter-tribal Center has a long history of problems in its governance and its management."
Shirley Pierce, a Native American who turns to the center for help, is more blunt. "My grandchildren could get on that board and run it better than they do," she says.
The Dallas Inter-tribal center was born in 1971, a product of the federal government's efforts to help American Indians move from reservations into mainstream society.
The nonprofit center, located at 209 E. Jefferson, is supposed to offer a sort of one-stop shopping for Native Americans in need. Money from different federal agencies is funneled through the DIC to pay for medical and dental programs, alcohol and substance abuse counseling, a food bank, rent assistance, job training, and various other programs.
The center is open to all Native Americans who are on the rolls of federally recognized tribes, and it's supposed to serve clients from Dallas and 10 surrounding counties.
Those who use its services say the center is vital. Without it, the sick would have to sit all day at Parkland Memorial Hospital or other county hospitals. Those needing other help would have to drive to the next closest center, which is in Ada, Oklahoma, four hours away.
Each day an average of 51 people arrive at the center to see a doctor, dentist, or counselor, or take advantage of other programs. The nondescript brick storefront only covers 16,000 square feet, and those waiting for help watch television soap operas or stare at the brown flecks in the linoleum. Wall racks display health brochures with titles such as "Are Indians at risk for AIDS?" Maroon benches seat 16 clients.
Michelle North received help with her rent from the center in May under a program that provides emergency money to needy families. Broke and facing eviction, she contacted the center and was told that if she wanted help she would have to call on the first day of the month, when only the first five callers would be considered for assistance. She ultimately received $300, the break she needed to get back on track. Since then, she's been hired at the center temporarily to make appointments for the health clinic. "It helped me out tremendously, and that's why I wanted to put something back into the center," she says.
The federal government's Indian Health Services funds the center's medical and dental clinics, and clients say the services are good. But only if you can get though the door.
Trying to get a dental appointment is almost impossible, says Sheila Sudderth-Heidleberg, who takes her three daughters into DIC for medical and dental care. As with rent assistance, appointments for dental work are only taken one day a month.
Lou Nevaquaya, a Comanche, has grown weary of the DIC's paltry services. "They're just giving us chump change," she says. "It's falling short, but that's the way a lot of our services are. That's why you'll find a lot of disenchanted Indians out there, because that's all they dole out to us--bad services and limited amounts of this and that."
Judging by the DIC's recent financial and political problems, things are only going to get worse.
The DIC's books, quite simply, are in a shambles. The last time an independent audit was performed was in 1993, and the accounts were out of balance by $140,007. Joann Peters, an attorney working for the DIC, says the Indian Health Services--which funds the center's health clinics--accepted the center's explanation for the discrepancy, as well as other questions about the DIC's accounting practices.
But the Department of Agriculture, which administers the federal Women, Infants and Children program, has not been so tolerant. Last year, WIC decided not to renew its contract with the center and cut off about $300,000 worth of funding that would have been used to provide food to pregnant women and children.
Jack Metz, director of the operations division in WIC's Texas office, says the center's failure to perform audits prompted the funding cutoff.
"They were given time to comply, and they didn't do it," Metz says. "So we held up some money due them under the contract. Then we declined to re-enter the agreement."
The loss of WIC funding marked the second time recently that the DIC has lost money because of its business practices. Last year, the center didn't reapply for $40,000 under the Indian Child Welfare program. The DIC had to pass on the program because the center spends more on overhead and administrative expenses than the program would cover.
Peters blames the lack of audits on turnover in the accounting director's job. But Mike Tydlaska, the center's current accounting director, says antiquated computers and accounting software are the biggest problems.
Biermann says the center has enough trouble keeping its records up to date day by day, much less going back and reconstructing past finances for an auditor's review.
"When I came in there in 1994 as clinic director, they [the audits] hadn't been done in a couple of years," Biermann says. "When they get behind, in order to get caught up, to shorten that time period in there, you have to add more people, or you have to shorten that time span."
Tydlaska and others argue that the DIC could be saving money by changing some of its accounting practices--such as the way it bills individual programs to pay for things like salaries and overhead.
But the center's method of dipping into program funds to pay overhead is also under fire, specifically because of the way the center collects rent for its building. Right now, the DIC deducts rent payments from the budgets of most of the programs it administers, charging $2.41 a square foot for the space each program uses.
The money is paid to a separate holding company, the Dallas American Indian Center, which is effectively controlled by the DIC. The holding company earns about $39,816 a year in rent, assuming the money is actually deposited where it belongs. (When he began in February, Tydlaska says he found $30,000 worth of rent checks that had never been deposited. Only about $10,000 of the checks were still valid; many had expired.)
The holding company actually owns the building housing the DIC, but the DIC controls the holding company. As the building has already been paid off, some clients wonder if it is proper for DIC to be steering money into the holding company account.
Abe Jackson, a former board member, says he thinks the arrangement passes muster, but admits that "when you sit down and start talking about reasoning, it doesn't sound very reasonable."
Metz and James Serrata, both in the Texas WIC office, say the holding company arrangement is unusual at best. "There's something a little shady about that," Metz says.
"If the contractor owns its own building, it usually is depreciated. Once it is depreciated, it shouldn't be charging rent," Serrata says.
The original idea behind the holding company, which was formed in 1992, was to squirrel away money to buy a new building, Jackson says. But so far that hasn't happened. Instead, the money has been used to pay the center's legal bills, which are mounting.
The DIC board's treasurer also happens to be the agent for the holding company.
Even though board members control both entities, Frank McLemore says he never attended a Dallas American Indian Center meeting during his nine months as a DIC board member. "The holding company supposedly has its own board of directors but, by law, they're supposed to have separate meetings," he says. "I don't ever recall seeing any minutes where they had meetings at all."
Whatever the condition of the tribal center's books, its staff is unquestionably in turmoil. The center is now trying to fill five openings, but really needs to add at least 10 more people to its 25-member staff, Tydlaska says. Among the open jobs are most of the center's highest posts, including executive director, clinic director, and jobs development coordinator.
Tydlaska himself has resigned once, come back, given notice, and withdrawn it again. "I didn't want to be blamed for the audits not being done," he says. "There is too much chaos there."
Tydlaska has decided to stay, at least for a while, because he feels some loyalty toward the center. The DIC helped pay for his accounting degree, and he wants to repay it for the education.
More selfishly, he's worried about leaving and risking negative job references. "I felt that if I quit, I would damage myself because I want to get my MBA, and this experience will enhance my qualifications for entry into a top university," he says.
The center's former executive director, Biermann, says she quit because she felt her professional reputation was being jeopardized. Biermann believes DIC is on the brink of collapse, and she's only willing to take part of the blame for the problems.
"I've probably, on occasion, screwed up on some things. If I have, it's been unknowingly, or it has been because I've had eight balls up in the air," she says.
Biermann's biggest problem, she says, was trying to work with a governing board that can't get its act together.
Like many nonprofits, the Dallas Inter-tribal Center often has to cast about for people to serve on its board of directors. The center's board members aren't paid, although they can be reimbursed for expenses.
"I think that if you look at a lot of nonprofit boards, you will find that many of them have problems with their boards, because frequently people don't understand the time commitments that are required to be actively serving on a board of this type," says Peters, one of the DIC's attorneys.
But the DIC board also operates with some handicaps of its own making. Board members are elected by registered Native Americans who live in the DIC's 11-county service area. The seats rotate, with at least four positions coming up for election each year.
In 1995, the board voted to increase its size from nine to thirteen members. No one is sure why, since it was already hard enough to keep nine members interested. The larger board increased to seven the number of members who must be present to constitute a quorum, allowing the board to conduct its business legally.
But getting a quorum has always proved tricky. Paul Shunatona, who served on the DIC board in 1992, says that it was mighty frustrating, and that he often wasted hours traveling to DIC for board meetings that were canceled because not enough members showed up.
After enlarging the board, DIC officials decided they would compensate by simply changing their rules on what constituted a quorum. At some point--it is impossible to tell when from the board's sporadic records of its meetings--it was decided that only five members were needed for a quorum instead of seven. The rationale, Peters says, was that all 13 board seats were never full anyway.
As a result, the DIC board has been meeting, hiring people, firing people, and authorizing money to be spent without satisfying the legal requirements for a quorum.
No one is certain how many years the board may have been operating illegally. "In the last five years, I don't think there's ever been a full board," says former member Frank McLemore.
The center's bylaws allow oft-absent members to be booted from their seats, but that apparently has never been done. "These folks who are not here consistently, we need to kick them off and try to get out to the community and get some members," former board member Roy Carlisle told a recent meeting of the board.
Each year, four seats on the board are supposed to come up for election. But most often, nobody runs, and board members are simply appointed to new seats, leaving their old ones vacant. "Sometimes the board would vote to extend people's terms without re-election," Peters says. "I'm not seeking to indict anybody or make any big issues out of some evil intent. What we have is maybe people trying to do the best they could do under some trying circumstances, but making some mistakes that need to be corrected if possible."
Ultimately, former member Jackson says, the board became its own worst enemy. "We let personalities get into the way. When we did that amongst ourselves, it handicapped us, because we couldn't do the work we were supposed to do," he says.
Recently, board meetings have degenerated into horrific parodies of the democratic process. Board members whisper and giggle among themselves. Outraged community members scream in protest. "Communication is the key to relations," Michelle North told the board at its May meeting. "It is apparent we have very little communication here with community feedback. Ya'll are telling us what you want us to hear or what you choose to tell us."
One result of the board's chronic inability to keep its house in order is that member Gilbert Oakes is now serving his third consecutive term as treasurer, even though the center's bylaws clearly allow no more than two consecutive terms.
Former board members say they never had any idea what was going on with the center's budget. Oakes seldom made treasurer reports, and missing documents seemed to be par for the course. (Oakes declined to be interviewed by the Dallas Observer.)
"We had to take their word for it" on financial matters, Jackson says. No matter how often board members pressed for accounting records, he says, the documents were never produced, including things such as Biermann's travel expenses while she was executive director.
"We were supposed to have approved her travel, had reports back from her travel, and see the expense accounts. We never saw that," McLemore says.
But there is plenty more about the center's operations that the board has been unable to get a handle on.
For bureaucracy's sake, Indian tribes are lumped together and expected to act as one. Sometimes that's about as realistic as expecting Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland to start playing nicely.
"A lot of people have a habit of, when you're talking about Indians, assuming them to be a homogeneous group," says Shunatona, an attorney and former DIC board member. "It's not really the case. Tribal members have certain measures of affiliation with their tribe and pride. You're going to have conflicts."
There are members of at least 40 tribes within the 11-county area the DIC serves, and members of at least six tribes working at the center. Tribal friction has surfaced in the form of lawsuits claiming that the DIC has discriminated against employees because of their tribal affiliations.
A lawsuit filed by former employee Lynne Armstrong in June paints a portrait of tribalistic attitudes run amuck. What Armstrong says began as a joke quickly turned into a real fight and ultimately cost Armstrong her job.
The trouble began in February when Tydlaska was named the center's accounting director. Upon learning that Tydlaska is a Creek, Armstrong commented "another Creek?" and said his appointment looked "like tribalism" to her. Armstrong says she was merely repeating a long-standing joke about how many administrative staffers belonged to the Creek Nation, including former executive director Biermann.
But Administrative Assistant Emma Olea, who is Creek, took offense at Armstrong's comment and filed a complaint. Armstrong received a copy of Olea's complaint and filed a response with her supervisor, Ken Martinez. In her response, Armstrong claimed she was being subjected to a double standard and asserted that "bias is equally repugnant regardless of which direction it flows."
The two women and Biermann wrangled for several weeks over what should be done about Olea's complaint.
Armstrong's bosses finally decided to issue a disciplinary warning. Armstrong refused to sign the memo accepting the admonishment, and ultimately was fired.
Armstrong has since sued the center seeking damages for alleged discrimination, libel, and slander.
Bob Goodman, the attorney representing Armstrong, also handled a similar discrimination suit filed by former Clinic Director Sharon Turcotte. After mediation, the center's insurance company agreed to pay Turcotte an undisclosed sum to settle the case, according to court records.
Goodman says Armstrong's case "is just another example of somebody riding roughshod in the situation."
Abe Jackson believes the board found itself "between a rock and a hard place" in Armstrong's case. Reinstating Armstrong after she'd been fired would have been "a slap in the face" to Biermann. On the other hand, siding with Biermann prompted the lawsuit.
Jackson says tribalism is a problem at DIC. He believes Biermann did favor hiring employees who, like herself, were members of the Creek Nation.
Biermann denies the charge, but declined to talk about the lawsuits filed by Armstrong or Turcotte. Current DIC board members also declined comment, saying they have signed a confidentiality agreement promising not to talk about pending litigation.
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the tribal center's woes than its inability to fix something as simple as a leaky roof.
The roof on the Jefferson Boulevard building has been leaking for years. Initially, DIC's board decided not to spend any money on repairs, hoping instead to buy a new building and move out. But a deal on a new building fell through in July 1995, and the board finally faced the inevitable.
In September 1995, Biermann told the board the roof needed to be fixed before it collapsed. Repairs were approved in October 1995, but it took almost another year to review bids. Work had still not begun in October 1996, when the roof finally did collapse, damaging computers, ceiling tiles, and carpeting, McLemore says.
Finally, in October, the center paid $30,000 to have the repairs done. But two weeks after the work was finished, the roof began leaking again.
The center is now trying to get the contractor to come back and fix the roof properly, Tydlaska says. The problem, apparently, is that the work crew left bottles on the roof that washed into the drains and plugged them up.
Storm runoff was effectively dammed up, and pooled on the flat roof. Leaks developed, and part of the center's ceiling collapsed. One-third of the building remains closed and cannot be used.
The collapsed ceiling spawned other problems. Soggy carpet created a fungus problem, according to Armstrong, the former employee who is suing the center for job discrimination. Armstrong has also filed a claim of workplace injury with the Texas Worker's Compensation Commission.
According to tribal center memos, Armstrong says she began having problems breathing, especially in her office, and a doctor told her the problems were caused by fungus, mold, and bacteria in the carpeting. Armstrong asked to have her office carpeting replaced several times with no response.
"I really don't think what she was asking for was unreasonable," Jackson says. "The things she was listing were right on track, especially the health factors. It would have been so easy to put carpet in that place."
By the spring of 1996, there were hints that Mary Biermann's job as executive director was on the line. She was due for an evaluation--in fact, she was asking for one because a performance review was required by the Indian Health Services.
In April, the board's personnel committee began putting together its report, and it found Biermann wanting in 11 areas including leadership, staff supervision, research and evaluation of community needs, developing new proposals, and personnel recruiting and retention. The board was growing tired of constantly dealing with low staff morale, Jackson says.
"She had no idea what a long-range plan was, to say nothing about managing finances," McLemore says. "We don't have a place that you would typically call a community center, where various activities can be conducted or meetings held. Related to that would also be some focus on the elderly people. There is just no place for them, not even in the church groups. There is a growing need for that.
"This is where, if Mary Biermann had a long-range concept of a plan, she could easily have integrated this into the operation of the Dallas Inter-tribal Center...The board could care less. All they want is to show on their resume that they served on the board for a year or so and move on."
But Biermann says she didn't have time for long-range planning and spent most of her time putting out fires caused by the board's mismanagement.
She disagrees with the criticisms in the evaluation. "In that [previous] year's time, there was never a meeting or a reprimand to say I was off the mark or that there were some things I should do differently or that I was weak in an area," she says. "With no feedback, you're assuming things are going all right."
Frustrated by her relationship with the board, Biermann decided to step down. Her resignation, however, came just as the board of directors encountered open revolt from one of its members.
On April 18, the board scheduled an executive session, supposedly to finish Biermann's evaluation. But the meeting had to be moved from the DIC building to Dallas Indian United Methodist Church, where Jackson was the minister, after protesters showed up outside the DIC offices wearing DIC T-shirts, carrying signs, and chanting, "Down with the board. We love Mary."
Five board members, past and present, gathered at the church: Sandra Galindo, Gerald Strain, Roy Carlisle, McLemore, and Jackson. Before the meeting could begin, Treasurer Gilbert Oakes Jr., accompanied by Biermann and Tydlaska, "stormed" the meeting.
Oakes claimed he had a document from officials at the Indian Health Services demanding the resignation of all the board members. Except for Oakes. He insisted the board stop its meeting and all the other members step down from their seats. (IHS officials say they never asked for the board's resignation.)
Jackson, who was chairing the meeting, invited Oakes to join the group, but told him it would not consider his call for a mass ouster. "He was hollering at the whole board," Jackson says. "When he started talking the way he did, I turned my back on him. I did not want to look at him, because I've seen what he looks like when he goes on these tantrums and rages."
When Oakes refused to join the meeting, Jackson wadded up the document and threw it over his shoulder. The crumpled paper hit Oakes square in the face.
Oakes was not deterred. At the board's next meeting in May, attorney Peters announced that Oakes was threatening to sue the board. Oakes was claiming that the board's elections were improper, and that it was violating its own rules. Oakes was threatening to try to force the center into receivership.
Ultimately, the board responded by hiring two more attorneys.
Oakes' threatened lawsuit has never been filed, instead hanging in the ethereal netherworld where rumors and threats abound. But it is driving much of what happens at the DIC these days.
Jackson believes the phantom lawsuit is just a smokescreen Oakes is using to hang onto the treasurer's job.
One result of the phantom suit has been to force a new election for the entire board. Candidates have until August 4 to register for the election, and all Native Americans in the center's 11-county territory will then be eligible to elect a new board en masse in September.
"If there are people in the community who are upset about the way the [center] has been run by its board of directors and they think the board members have not done a good job, then they need to find some good applicants," Peters says.
The only ones clearly benefiting from the chaos are the attorneys. Attorney Patt Gibbs and an associate have been hired for $175 an hour to sort out the disagreements between Oakes and the board. Peters, the center's regular attorney, also receives $175 an hour, sources say. Both attorneys are quick to point out they have not billed DIC for all the time they've spent on the center's business.
The center's records show that $20,000 was transferred from the holding company account into a trust account on May 30 to pay Gibbs. The money was transferred before the board had even voted to pay the attorneys, apparently at Oakes' direction.
On just one accounting covering 11 days of billing, Gibbs received $7,375 and Peters $10,446 on June 16. Peters' payment included $2,760 for work done on Armstrong's discrimination lawsuit.
Asked about the time they've billed to the center, both attorneys declined to discuss their wages. "I really don't think that's any of your business," Peters says.
At the present rate of billing, DIC will have spent $45,000 on legal fees by the September election.
Gibbs is quick to point out that if Oakes' threatened lawsuit had materialized, DIC would easily have spent $50,000 a month defending itself.
"It's kind of dumb," Carlisle says. "You're paying somebody to sue yourselves. I'm so sick of it, I don't know what to do...Oakes has cost the center over $30,000 for no reason. We could have sat down and thrashed it out without all this shit we're going through."
Somewhere in all the mudslinging, the reason the attorneys were hired has been lost, Gibbs and Peters say. Their goal is to get the center back up to speed. Going without an executive director is not making the restructuring any smoother, Gibbs says.
"It's like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," she says. "Somehow, the harder you try to put it together, there is some force that is trying to cause this to fall apart, which then makes you start getting paranoid."
Mary Biermann now thinks she'd like to try again, and has applied to get her old job as executive director back. After two months' rest, she says she's ready to roll up her sleeves and help put the pieces back together again. Some board members have left, she says, and that would make the job easier.
But whether Biermann is rehired or not, the center has a long way to go to attain some semblance of order and stability. For the moment, it risks losing even more of its funding because of the chronic management problems.
"If you were a funding agency, would you want to be doling out funds to a group of people who are basically listing at sea?" asks attorney Gibbs.
Board member Carlisle is trying to be optimistic about the center's prospects. But he admits it won't be easy. "They're going to get their act together, because I'm going to raise enough hell where they'll have to," he says. "My wife told me I was walking into a hornet's nest. I said, 'I'm a mean old son of a bitch anyway. I'll get in there and stir that shit up with them.' So I did, and I am. I'm going to stay there until we get it straight.
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