The $98,093 penalty that the Lumbee Tribal Government must pay for misusing money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is less than 1 percent of the $14 million and change the tribe received in federal housing during 2010.
From that vantage point, the government’s misuse of housing money might not add up to a big deal. But if you are an eligible member of the tribe with a leaking roof that hasn’t been repaired because there is never enough funding to go around, the loss of the money is beyond a big deal.
Tribal Chairman Sharon Hunt, who didn’t make this mess but had the task of prettying it up, released a statement this week saying that an agreement had been reached with HUD. To her credit, Hunt was proactive in getting the information before the public, and didn’t wait for a reporter’s call.
The tribe isn’t paying back the money — it really doesn’t have the funds to do so — but the money will be deducted from future disbursements from HUD to the tribe. Bottom line: It is almost $100,000 that will not go to work to enhance the lives of tribal members who are living in disrepair. Time will tell if this mess jeopardizes future funding.
If there is good news, it’s hard to find, but we will take a shot. The unannounced audit that found problems provoked a closer look at the tribe’s finances, and the mess didn’t get bigger, but actually contracted a bit, with some original findings of fault being explained away by tribal officials.
Additionally, much of the mess was made at the hands of Tribal Chairman Purnell Swett and Tribal Administrator Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend, neither of whom are still with the tribe. Swett cited health issues when he resigned, but we all know better, and Lowry-Townsend couldn’t survive the scrutiny of the sweetheart deals that she profited from and her contract was allowed to expire.
But the real damage can’t be counted in dollars. The problems that HUD discovered made more credible allegations that have hovered for years that the Tribal Government takes care of its own — and, as tribal officials already knew, it is hard to repair a reputation when the public is so willing to believe the worst.
It pushed farther away that slippery goal that all governments aspire to, but few achieve, and that is gaining the trust of the people they serve.