Reporter: CHAD HUNTER
05/17/2019 11:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – Election Commission officials disqualified principal chief hopeful David Walkingstick on May 17 following hours of testimony and deliberation focused on alleged campaign violations.
Walkingstick, the Dist. 3 tribal councilor, was accused of illegally soliciting campaign contributions, accepting illegal in-kind contributions from a limited liability company and more.
Cherokee Nation marshals and the attorney general’s office investigated complaints lodged against him. The attorney general’s office claimed Walkingstick worked with Cherokees for Change LLC to illegally funnel donations into his campaign.
“The candidate has said on multiple occasions what’s done in the dark will be brought to light, and he’s absolutely correct,” Attorney General Todd Hembree said. “It’s clear that he has violated campaign law, he has attempted and conspired to bring dark money into the election process. And we brought that to light.”
The EC rendered its 4-0 decision without Chairwoman Shawna Calico, who was absent due to a death in the family, officials said.
“David Walkingstick knew that Cherokees for Change, LLC was being created directly for his benefit,” the EC decision states, “and both his financial agent and his mother assisted the LLC in carrying out its mission.”
Deputy Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo said there was “no doubt” Walkingstick’s campaign “coordinated with Cherokees for Change LLC.”
“We don’t know who gave money to Cherokees for Change,” she said. “We don’t know why they are interested in Cherokee Nation elections. We know how much they spent because they told us. But we don’t know what they spent all of that on. There’s arguably $35,000 hanging around out there two weeks before the election.”
One issue debated was LLC owner Gregory Russell Appleton’s role in the Walkingstick campaign. Appleton was his campaign financial agent until the end of February, Walkingstick said.
The LLC was created on Feb. 21, according to Oklahoma records.
“It’s clear that Cherokees for Change actively campaigned for David Walkingstick by website, Facebook, high-quality and produced videos and two mass mailings costing tens of thousands of dollars,” Hembree said. “It’s clear by the phone records, substantial communications occurred between Mr. Walkingstick and Mr. Appleton, on the tribal council phone that Mr. Walkingstick was provided by the Cherokee Nation, up through March 6 and beyond.”
Walkingstick denied a connection with Cherokees for Change. He also said he never met Appleton in person, but that he and Appleton discussed, via phone calls and text messages, issues related to his financial reporting to the EC.
“I knew I needed about $1 million to win this race,” Walkingstick said. “Mr. Appleton had a reputation in the GOP for being a big fund raiser, so we visited over the phone and talked. About after the first month, there wasn’t any money coming in. Not that I want to discredit his ability to raise money, but he wasn’t effective for me. Therefore, we had to go separate ways.”
Walkingstick said he became aware of the LLC after Appleton left the campaign.
“I knew it was an anti-administration Facebook group when I first heard about it,” he said. “It was probably in March or April.”
Walkingstick’s attorney, Brian Berry, said, “We’re not happy about being linked up with Cherokee for Change, but we have no control over it.”
Evidence presented by the attorney general’s office included 108 pages of text messages and emails between Walkingstick, Appleton, Walkingstick’s campaign manager Luke Harshaw and others.
“There’s an affidavit in here from Rusty Appleton saying that David Walkingstick knew about Cherokees for Change,” Nimmo said.
It was also alleged in Hembree’s investigative memo that Walkingstick’s mother, Elizabeth DeAnn Walkingstick, set up a post office box for Cherokees for Change “so that the organization would be able to use a Park Hill return mail address on its direct mail campaign.” Hembree alleged that Walkingstick was named as “an individual who could receive mail at that post office box.”
“The Walkingstick campaign and Cherokees for Change, LLC shared an address for nearly a month,” Hembree wrote in the memo.
Walkingstick said his mother opened the post office box without his knowledge, potentially at the request of a caller named Hudson Tally, who the attorney general’s office said was associated with Cherokees for Change.
When discussing his mother’s involvement, Walkingstick said he first heard of the post office box after marshals “interrogated my 70-year-old widow mother” during the investigation.
“She locked herself in a room and started crying and said the marshals are trying to arrest her,” Walkingstick said. “When you start dragging people’s mothers in and start treating them like criminals, that’s when it becomes personal.”
Nimmo said there is a recording of the event at his mother’s home.
“I listened to it,” she said. “Our Marshal Service was extremely respectful. I don’t doubt (Walkingstick’s) sincerity in his statements about his mom and being worried about her. But I want to make it clear that our Marshal Service was not intimidating and harassing someone.”
Walkingstick’s camp filed unsuccessful motions with the EC to disqualify Hembree and others in his office from taking part based on alleged “conflicts” and “bias.”
“The people charged with doing the investigation are strong supporters of the candidate’s opponent,” Berry said.
The hearing that began at 9 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. attracted Walkingstick supporters who offered encouragement and carried signs reading “David Vs Goliath” and “I Stand With Stick.” When the EC decision was announced, spectator Ethel Pollard, of Tahlequah, made a statement from the crowd and was escorted out by marshals.
“This is the sorriest bunch of people I’ve ever seen,” she said. “There was no evidence, and I mean none. You said there was money transferred. You never showed money being transferred. I’ll gladly leave this place. This isn’t the last time you’ll hear from us either.”
CN Cultural Outreach officer Dawni Squirrel, of Kenwood, expressed a differing view.
“I feel like the process worked,” she said. “We have election laws and consequences. When you look at the written complaint submitted against Walkingstick, there are many allegations. Some could be proven and some couldn’t. So to me, it was a fair process.”
Walkingstick has until 5 p.m. on May 24 to file an appeal with the Supreme Court. When asked if he appeal, he said he would consult with his attorneys.
Following the EC decision, Walkingstick campaign manager, Luke Harshaw released a statement on Walkingstick’s behalf: “Although we are proud Cherokee citizens, we are also United States citizens with a guaranteed right to free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Cherokee Nation Election Commission’s ruling to remove David Walkingstick shows either a total disregard or misunderstanding of what our First Amendment protects.”
Harshaw referenced the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, stating U.S. citizens cannot be denied the right to raise and spend money to influence an election for a candidate.
“The Election Commission’s disqualification of Walkingstick from the Principal Chief election is in direct conflict with this ruling that remains the law of the land,” he wrote. “The Walkingstick campaign did not coordinate with or accept contributions from Cherokees for Change LLC, and the Election Commission has no legal right to remove a candidate from the ballot as the result of another United States citizen exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.”
Less that 24 hours prior to the EC decision, Walkingstick was asked if he believes the Citizens United decision should apply to tribal nations? During a Rogers State University principal chief candidate forum, Walkingstick responded in part by saying “if we are going to allow Washington politics into Cherokee Nation, we need election reform so we can regulate those types of things. Super PACs, LLCs, whatever it is, but unfortunately it’s taking place.”
The remaining principal chief candidates are Dist. 12 Tribal Councilor Dick Lay and former Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr.
Hoskin issued the following response after the EC decision was reached: “The integrity of our elections are of paramount importance and the process is grounded in our laws. The very sovereignty of our nation is at stake. The Cherokee election laws are crystal clear, all donors, regardless of amount, must be reported and donations by corporations are illegal. I reject the idea that outside interests can trample Cherokee law and sovereignty by pouring unlimited and unregulated secret money into our elections with no consequences. The Election Commission has properly executed its duties to ensure the integrity of our election process moving forward.”
Lay could not be reached for comment as of publication.
Click here to view the Election Commission decision.