Kiowa Tribe
Kiowa Tribe Chairman Matthew Komalty sits next to Angela McCarthy, Kiowa legislative speaker, with members of the tribe’s executive branch and legislators during a discussion earlier this year about tribal safety during early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Provided)

(Update: The impeachment trial for Matthew Komalty, chairman of the 14,000 member Kiowa Tribe was halted Thursday, July 30, after the Court of Indian Offenses ordered a delay. Komalty sought the delay because of a concern that two legislators were reportedly exposed to COVID-19, one receiving a false positive test result, according to Angela McCarthy, the legislature’s speaker. The impeachment trial is now set to resume Wednesday, Aug. 5. The story below previewing the impeachment trial remains in its original format.)

The Kiowa Tribe chairman is facing impeachment over his handling of COVID-19 relief funds by the tribe’s seven member legislative branch.

The alleged mishandling of funds, distributed by the federal government through the COVID-19 CARES Act, is one of five “constitutional violations” Chairman Matthew Komalty will be facing in a 10 a.m. public hearing set for Thursday, July 30, at the tribal headquarters in Carnegie, 80 miles west of Oklahoma City.

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

In addition to the mismanagement of CARES Act funding, Komalty is charged with wrongful termination of Kiowa gaming employees, failing to go through the proper process on the annual tribal audit, failing to ensure that the treasurer was properly bonded, implementing salary increases without approval and unapproved appointment of an executive director, said Angela McCarthy, speaker of the Kiowa Legislature.

“We have to only find him impeachable on one of the charges (…) and our basic stance is that we’re doing it on behalf of the people, protecting our people,” McCarthy said. “We’re their voice, and this is one of their only recourses.”

The Kiowa Constitution outlines that impeachment requires a unanimous vote by all seven legislators. Impeachment is effective immediately, if adopted.

The seven tribal legislators unanimously approved proceeding with the Komalty’s impeachment June 23.

Recall effort also underway

At the same time, Komalty is facing a potential recall election that was launched June 20, only three days before the impeachment vote. Tribe members would need to collect 1,511 signatures to force the recall vote. There are about 14,100 enrolled members of the Kiowa Tribe, according to Freida Satepeahtaw, director of the tribe’s COVID-19 response program.

To recall the chairman from office, the amount of signatures obtained on the petition must be the same amount as the number of votes of the election from when Komalty took office. The tribe’s election commission then would host a special election for the recall, and votes for the recall must either match or be higher than the number of people who signed the recall petition.

“There is no basis for any of these charges,” Komalty said in an interview with Gaylord News.

If Komalty is impeached, all CARES Act spending would be temporarily halted until it can be voted on by the Kiowa Indian Council. First elected in 2017, Komalty said this would “place all tribal members in jeopardy” and delay distribution of the COVID-19 CARES assistance to members for months.

“When I took office, my two priorities were to take care of our school children and take care of our elders,” Komalty said. “I have a background in education. I was raised by my grandpa and grandma, so that’s where I come from. I told my son and daughters the other day, when I pass away, all I want on my headstone is that ‘he cared’. And that’s what we do, we care. Everybody here has got big hearts, and that’s all we care about is our people.”

McCarthy said this isn’t the first time the impeachment of Komalty had been discussed within the Kiowa Tribe Legislature. However, this is the first time it’s been put through the beginning stages of the process. 

Komalty’s possible impeachment and recall from office marks 10 years of turmoil in tribal leadership. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had refused to recognize the results of Kiowa tribal elections until Komalty’s in 2017. The BIA intervened in the tribe’s 2015 election after “four years of broken government” within the tribe, a move the tribe fought.

Kiowa elder J.T. Goombi, however, questions Komalty’s transparency on allocating the CARES Act money.

“Did [Komalty] get out here and say, ‘Here, we got money and here’s what we plan to do with it?’ That’s not there. So that’s become a big problem,” Goombi said. “It wasn’t until [Komalty] got his impeachment charges, and his recall charges, that he started publicizing the things that he was going to do and try to do. You don’t wait till you get in trouble and then start publicizing all the good stuff that you learned to do. It’s a little after the fact.”

Goombi said a forensic audit is the biggest thing that would help the Kiowa Tribe. A forensic audit would seek to identify the origin of the funding and anybody that had access to it, and it would identify weaknesses in operating policies while suggesting changes to the policies, Goombi said. 

“I think if we can get our forensic audit done, that’ll give us a starting place. Anything less than that, we’re just gonna be spinning our wheels and looking bad for the next 20 years,” Goombi said. “The Bible says, ‘You build your house on solid ground, you’ll stand.’ Up to now, we’ve gotten where we’ve been building on sand. And you know what comes with that.”

(Correction: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Friday, July 24, 2020, to correct reference to the Kiowa Tribe’s 2017 election.)