The precipitous fall and public humiliation of Purnell Swett, with his decision to resign as chairman of the Lumbee Tribal Government, is almost complete. There is still a not-so-little matter of a high school that shares his name, and the cries will get louder that a man who has twice been forced to resign public office under allegations that he mismanaged taxpayer money is not deserving of that honor.
Swett’s plunge is a head-scratcher. A fair review of his body of work must include a number of achievements as superintendent of the old county school system, including bringing in millions of dollars for construction of schools, and his leading role in school merger. But those accomplishments will be hidden by the long shadow cast by his resignations in 1997 as superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County and last week as tribal chairman.
Swett always tried to explain the 1997 resignation and an Alford plea to the misdemeanor of misprision as simply a misunderstanding over a bonus he was due, but the recent HUD audit of the tribe’s finances suggest that cleverly arranged words will be unconvincing. For starters, what compelled Swett to treat the HUD money as an ATM for former Tribal Administrator Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend, who benefited from an illegal contract and was paid more than $30,000 to craft a handbook that would have earned an eighth-grader a C? Keep an eye on the almost $70,000 that was paid to Tiber Creek Associates of Capitol Hill Inc., which bills itself as a lobbying firm, but whose services — so far at least — haven’t been identified. And why was the tribe paying $5,500 a month to rent space for a Veterans Affairs Office? Could cheaper space not have been found, or room made at The Turtle?
Unfortunately for the Tribal Government its problems will not follow Swett out after he empties his office on May 23. Swett insists that this mess will get smaller, that things aren’t as grievous as they appear, but we are hearing the opposite, that only one swig of the bottle has been taken. Would it not be naive to assume that others will not be entangled in the net?
Right now, HUD says the tribe must pay back $114,500 that was intended for housing work but was illegally misdirected. That is the immediate problem as a 30-day clock on getting that done is already ticking, and the tribe doesn’t have much ability to raise money beyond depending on the benevolence of members, a well that is probably dry.
But much more troublesome is the validation of a decade’s worth of accusations that the government is a good-old-boys club that takes care of its own, and is inattentive to the needs of thousands of Lumbees who are living in disrepair. It’s hard now to see far enough down the road to a time when that reputation will have been rehabilitated.
It didn’t have to be this way.
In November 2009, tribal members picked Swett to lead their government, fully aware of the baggage he carried, but also mindful of his intellect, his connections, and his energy, believing he was the best man to deliver them to the Promised Land of federal recognition. We now know what happened — if not all of it, enough to realize the mistake that was made, not by Swett, but by those tribal members who forgot the old adage, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”
It would all make for a sad ending, except that we’re not at the end.