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Ex-Quapaw Tribal Chairman, Officials Charged Over Misappropriation Of Funds

Former Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berrey.
Quapaw Nation
Former Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berrey.

Former Quapaw Nation chairman John Berrey and former secretary treasurer Tamara Smiley-Reeves have been hit with criminal charges ranging from attempted embezzlement, conspiracy and abuse of office to improper gifts to tribal officials or employees.

The charges were filed in Quapaw Nation Court on Friday, one day before citizens could officially declare their candidacy in the upcoming election for the Business Committee. Berrey, a 20 year incumbent, was defeated last summer by Joseph Tali Byrd and Guy Barker.

In addition to the charges against Berrey and Smiley-Reeves, civil charges were also filed against Jack Brill, Tena Smith, Janet Cummings, Sheri Smiley, Marilyn Rogers and George McWatters. All were employees or involved in Berrey's administration.

Special prosecutor Doug Dry handed down 18 total indictments, each carrying three year prison sentences and a $15,000 fine. According to The Quapaw Post, the Quapaw Nation's new news and information source, the offenses occurred between April 2014 and July 2020.

In response to the charges, the former chairman said in an email: "The latest events are just more efforts to defame. It was posted the day filing for candidacy opened and it's an attempt to stop me. I look forward to clearing my name and running for vice chairman of the Quapaw Nation and begin to heal our Nation."

According to court documents, Downstream Development Authority, or DDA, Saracen Development and the Quapaw tribe are alleging that combined, they received salaries and bonuses upwards of $7.3 million in bonuses and raises without approval from the Quapaw business committee. $4 million included "success fees" from the DDA, the tribal nation's development arm that raised money for their casino and resorts in Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The DDA has since been dissolved and employees named in the court document no longer work for the Quapaw.

An initial court appearance is set for May 6.

Court documents also show that some of the defendants took advantage of Quapaw gaming operations by taking upwards of $10,000 from the casino cashier, receiving free meals and alcohol in excess of $100,000, spa treatments totalling more than $75,000 and making purchases of more than $50,000 on DDA credit cards. Berrey is also accused of taking artwork from the DDA.

During last fall's General Council meeting, figures from an audit were presented to citizens of the tribal nation during their annual gathering to discuss tribal nation business. Innovative Gaming Solutions, an auditing firm based in Missouri, showed that Berrey independently received more than $17 million in bonuses.

A Complicated Legacy

Berrey declared in a private Facebook group he moderates that he intends to run for the position of vice chair.

"I'm going to run for vice chairman," he wrote last Friday. "I'm sick of the lies and manipulation and I will get the Bear money and make sure all Quapaw get money not the friends and family of the few!!!!"

Berrey wrote his post after weeks of hinting that he would be announcing something big. "The Bear money" is a settlement the tribal nation is in the middle of closing on that settles a decades long battle over mismanagement of trust land.

It's unclear whether or not he can mount an election campaign for a seat on the Business Committee now that charges have been filed against him.

Berrey's legacy with the Quapaw Nation is complicated. Many credit him with generating economic opportunities for the tribal nation including a new meat processing plant, three gas and convenience stores, a coffee roasting company and two resort style casinos, one of which just opened in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

However, over time, some say that he has created an oligarchy where he and a few others in his administration made decisions without input from citizens or the business committee.

A Push For Transparency

Current Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd released a statement saying he hopes these charges will bring some closure to Quapaw citizens who have called for transparency.

"While I’m saddened at the depths of criminality discovered, the Quapaw Nation is a nation of laws, and no one is above them," said Byrd. "I’m pleased charges have been filed against these individuals, who will now face the consequences of their dishonesty and greed. For too long, the defendants treated the Quapaw Nation and its assets as a personal bank account and playground. The charges filed Friday send a strong message that those days are over."

Byrd believes that a move he made last fall to shift authority back to the Business Committee will provide more transparency and accountability.

The tribal nation is also in the middle of drafting a new constitution that will be presented to the General Council for feedback. The new constitution would allow for a better grievance process, systems that would allow citizens to know where money is being spent, and possibly create term limits for those running for office.


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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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