This all started about 18 months ago, when the band initiated an internal investigation on a community development project. During that investigation, the band's solicitor general, Rjay Brunkow, said they noticed several expenses linked to the chief executive for her personal use.
In fact, the investigation itself became so large that we brought in David Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney with the law firm Frederickson and Byron, to help us conduct this investigation," Brunkow said.
The case is still under federal investigation and may involve others on the reservation. The petition against Melanie Benjamin details between five and eight transactions where she allegedly used tribal money to improve her home.
Brunkow said another investigation points to improper use of casino benefits.
"Separately, the Mille Lacs band gaming regulatory authority conducted an audit just in the ordinary course of their business recently," Brunkow said. "That audit showed that the former chief executive had received in excess of $52,000 in comp items that she was not normally entitled to."
According to Melanie Benjamin, the allegations are not true. She said a smear campaign against her began this summer after her re-election and her removal is politically motivated.
"There were a lot of dirty politics going on at that time and the people that are behind this whole removal process are the ones who worked very hard to make sure that I didn't get re-elected and the ones that worked on that are now in office," Benjamin said.
Benjamin was first elected in 2000, and began her third term in July. When she found out there would be a joint session of elected officials to review the removal petition, she filed a complaint with the tribal district court to stop the hearing.
She questions the validity of the petition signatures.
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is the only band in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe that has set up a separation of powers with judicial, legislative, and executive branches.
Yesterday, the band assembly held a hearing to review the removal petition. When the tribal district court denied Benjamin's request to stop the hearing, Benjamin appealed the decision and the appellate court granted her request. The band assembly proceeded with the hearing and ousted her from office. Benjamin said her removal is unlawful.
Benjamin walked into the band assembly chambers Wednesday morning right before the removal hearing was scheduled to start. She said the band assembly had a copy of the court order.
"And they basically said, 'We don't care what the court said and we're proceeding with our hearing," Benjamin said. "And I got into the joint session and read the court document and basically said it's now up to the courts and then I left the joint session."
Rjay Brunkow explained that there are two ways to remove a public officer. One uses an article in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribal Constitution, the other is through band statute.
"There are some provisions in band statute which conflict with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribal Constitution and so the band chose to follow the Minnesota Chippewa Tribal Constitution in effectuating this removal," Brunkow said.
Brunkow said the band assembly's decision and authority to remove an elected official is not reviewable by any tribal courts. He said this makes Benjamin's appeal invalid. Brunkow said there may be a hearing on Monday to review the band's arguments and other constitutionality issues.
Benjamin said she will continue to fight her removal.
In the meantime, the secretary treasurer of the band, Herbert Weyaus is now interim chief executive. The band has 141 days to elect a new chief executive.
Brunkow said the band expects to have more than two candidates running for office and it's likely the band will hold a primary election. He aslo said the action doesn't affect Grand Casino Mille Lacs or Grand Casino Hinckley.