Tanana Chiefs Conference chief/chairman Pollack "PJ" Simon Jr.

Photo courtesy of Tanana Chiefs Conference

Incoming Tanana Chiefs Conference chief/chairman Pollack “PJ” Simon Jr. accepts the staff after he was elected Oct. 16, 2020, during TCC’s annual board meeting. On Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, the TCC Board of Directors voted to remove Simon as chief and chairman.

A lawsuit filed against members of the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s executive board alleges financial malfeasance, illegal meetings and a secret agreement to pay off an unnamed former employee.

On Monday, the villages of Dot Lake and Healy Lake filed a complaint in Fairbanks Superior Court against Charlene Stern, vice president of TCC; Charlie Wright, secretary and treasurer; Nancy James, Yukon Flats representative; and Herbie Demit, Upper Tanana representative.

Stern hired lawyers, called meetings and forged an agreement to pay “a large sum of money” to an unnamed former employee without authorization from PJ Simon, chief and CEO of TCC, according to court documents.

The four defendants, along with Simon, belong to the 12-member executive board of the TCC, a federally-funded nonprofit organization based in Fairbanks that provides health care, social services and tribal support for dozens of Interior Alaska villages and more than 10,000 Alaska Natives spread across a region of 235,000 square miles.

TCC had $246 million in operating revenue for fiscal year 2020 and its financial standing is expected to improve “notably” due to “nearly $150 million of extraordinary pandemic-related federal aid and as TCC completes and ramps up its bond-funded expansion of the CAIHC (Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center),” according to Fitch Ratings, a credit rating agency.

What the plaintiffs are seeking

The villages of Dot Lake and Healy Lake are asking the Superior Court to void actions at two alleged illegal meetings of TCC leadership on Nov. 10 and Nov. 19 and to prohibit the defendants from taking further action under the “apparent authority” of the TCC executive board “in violation of notice requirements of the TCC bylaws and Alaska state statute,” the lawsuit reads. One of the actions the lawsuit seeks to void is a settlement to an unnamed former employee.

The complaint is signed by Michael Walleri, of Jason Weiner and Associates, and comes about a month after 30 people gathered outside of the TCC headquarters in protest of hiring and firing decisions by Simon during another meeting of the executive board.

The protesters said General Counsel Natasha Singh was the latest in a pattern of inappropriate or retaliatory firings by Simon, a plumber apprentice and hunting guide who took over as leader of the organization a little over a year ago, replacing Victor Joseph.

Neither Singh nor Joseph are named in the lawsuit, which mentions “suspected fiscal irregularities from the prior administration of TCC” and a need for a corrective action plan to address those financial irregularities.

TCC does not comment on human resources issues as a matter of policy, and the organization was closed on Friday in observance of a Tanana Chiefs holiday, according to a recorded telephone message. A message was left for Walleri at the offices of Weiner and Associates.

A revolving door of lawyers

Other lawyers involved with the conflict include Rebecca Patterson, Kim Dunn and Chris Zimmerman.

Patterson was hired by Brian Ridley, TCC’s chief financial officer, and Geraldine Simon, compliance officer, to serve as interim general counsel using Simon’s electronic signature, according to court documents.

Patterson is with the law firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson and Perry, which represents Indian tribes, including the Native Village of Tanana, of which Joseph is the executive director, according to court documents.

Patterson attended a Nov. 5 meeting of the TCC Yukon Tanana Subregional Board, without authorization from Simon, to act as TCC general counsel and to help the subregional board develop a strategy in advance of a Nov. 12 full board meeting.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit wrote in their court filings that “it was very unclear whether Ms. Patterson was representing Tanana or TCC at the meeting.” They also wrote that Patterson indicated that she was taking direction from Simon.

When Simon found out about Patterson and the “potential conflict of interest,” according to the court complaint, he retained Zimmerman to act as general counsel for the Nov. 12 full board meeting and sent Patterson a memorandum suspending her services.

Upon receiving the memo, Patterson contacted Stern, urging her to call an executive board meeting the next day, Nov. 10, according to court documents. Simon and others attended that meeting and protested it on account of failure to provide at least 10 days notice.

Patterson appeared the following day at a meeting of the TCC Credential Committee and then at the Nov. 12 full board meeting without Simon’s authorization, according to court records.

On Nov. 18, Stern called another special meeting of the executive board for the following day for the purposes of giving direction to legal counsel on confidential personnel matters, including working with a consultant on a grievance.

Stern led that meeting in which Simon, appearing via Zoom, objected to breaches of protocol. That’s when Dunn made an appearance and recommended that the TCC pay off a former employee even though that employee made no claim or grievance against the TCC, according to court documents.

The villages of Dot Lake and Healy Lake take the position that the purpose of the payment is to “cover up certain fiscal irregularities arising in the prior administration of TCC,” according to court documents.

At the Nov. 19 executive board meeting, Simon opposed the payment, Dunn told the executive board that he “needed to go” and Stern reportedly kicked Simon out of the meeting. After that, the remaining leaders approved a secret agreement involving a payment to a former employee, according to the lawsuit.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 907-459-7545, at abohman@newsminer.com or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.

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