When members of the Lumbee Tribe went to the polls to elect Purnell Swett as tribal chairman, theirs was not a blind ballot. Swett’s resume, a bit of a mixed bag, had been in bold print for years.
Swett had in the credit column a lifetime of achievement, both in the public and private sectors. He had made a heavy footprint on education in Robeson County, working as superintendent of the old county school system to bring in millions of dollars for brick and mortar. His efforts led to the construction of a high school that now bears his name. He had also worked with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s office of Indian Education in Washington, D.C.
But Swett can count as many enemies as allies.
When the decision was made to rename West Robeson High School in his honor, many in the community it serves objected, but Swett, instead of stepping aside graciously and saying thanks anyway, stood silently in the corner. That made for a clumsy conflict when he sought and won the superintendency of a school system with a high school named in his honor. His exit as superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County was forced, coming after allegations that he misappropriated money to his benefit. Although he will say today that he did nothing wrong, he entered an Alford plea to the misdemeanor crime of misprision, and paid back the money.
Opinions about Swett are never middle of the road. He is a man of immense intellect, someone who knows how to pull political strings, and as such seemed a good choice to lead the pursuit of the tribe’s No. 1 goal — federal recognition. But Swett is supremely confident, some would say arrogant, convinced that he is the smartest guy at the table, and he doesn’t always play well with the group.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Swett and the Tribal Council are in a blinking contest over control of how dollars are spent. Swett says the constitution gives the executive branch that power, and the council is only to provide oversight. The council is essentially unanimous in saying Swett is withholding information, and that he is particularly tight-fisted with the contract of Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend, the tribe’s administrator. The council wants Lowry-Townsend out when her contract ends.
A recent ruling by the tribe’s Supreme Court provided little clarity.
So the stage is set for the March 24 meeting of the Tribal Council, when Swett may or may not provide the requested information.
In the interim, Swett should consider that the No. 1 challenge that continues to dirty the Lumbee Tribal Government is its lack of credibility with members, who basically think it is a good old boys club, with the distribution of dollars determined by cronyism and nepotism. The chairman would be wise to remember why voters elected him. It was to provide transparency, not to flash stop signs.
Of this we are sure: The pursuit of Lumbee recognition and its reward of hundreds of millions of dollars is not advanced by Swett’s unwillingness to provide information on how money is spent, not only to the Tribal Council, but to tribal members. And even if Swett were to surrender that information tomorrow, it is impossible to calculate the damage that has already been done to the recognition effort in Washington, D.C., where some lawmakers are looking for any reason, valid or contrived, to say no to federal recognition.