(KXNET) — For the first time, a tribal government has received the Black Hole Award.

Although an award, in general, is usually handed out as recognition for merit, the Black Hole Award isn’t. The Society of Professional Journalists gives the award to those who they believe demonstrate the most heinous violation of the public’s rights. MHA Nation Tribal Chairman Mark Fox and his administration received two nominations from their own tribal members.

“The scope and scale of the lack of transparency by the Three Affiliated Tribes sets it apart from the very strong contenders for this year’s Black Hole Award, this case appears to be a prime case study in how secrecy regarding the use of public funds undermines faith in government,” stated Shannon Shaw Duty, a freedom of information Committee member of the Society of Professional Journalists, Osage News Editor, and Osage tribal citizen.”

Some tribal members feel Fox and his administration lack transparency and have violated the tribe’s own constitution and bylaws, citing that citizens were not provided with a copy of the Tribal Business Council’s 2018 audit — and to tribal members’ knowledge, have not received an audit since. Fox and his administration also came under fire after spending nearly $125 million on a Las Vegas property without informing the public until the deal was complete.

The press release states in full:

The Society of Professional Journalists is giving its annual Black Hole Award to the Mark Fox Administration of the Three Affiliated Tribes for a litany of transparency issues, including alleged violations of the tribe’s own constitution and bylaws.

The Black Hole Award highlights the most heinous violations of the public’s right to know and is awarded each year during Sunshine Week. This marks the first time this award has been given to a tribal government.

“The scope and scale of the lack of transparency by the Three Affiliated Tribes sets it apart from the very strong contenders for this year’s Black Hole Award,” said Shannon Shaw Duty, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member, Osage News editor and Osage tribal citizen. “This case appears to be a prime case study in how secrecy regarding use of public funds undermines faith in government.

The Fox Administration received two nominations from citizens of Three Affiliated Tribes, also referred to as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. TAT’s lack of compliance with the tribal constitution’s financial disclosure rules is longstanding and ongoing, said Howard Goldberg, SPJ FOI Committee member and retired AP New York bureau chief. “Officers of the North Dakota-based Three Affiliated Tribes have erected a stunning wall of secrecy around how they spend the hundreds of millions of dollars a year they receive in tax revenue, oil and gas royalties, and income from their large casino and hotel in Fort Berthold.

Although TAT Constitution and Bylaws states that money spent from the Tribal Business Council fund is a matter of public record, citizens were not provided with a copy of the TAT’s 2018 audit or any other audit upon request, according to the nomination materials. Citizens received a 2018 copy through a leak, when it was discovered that the auditing firm issued two adverse opinions and four disclaimed opinions. Furthermore, to the public’s knowledge, the tribe has not conducted an annual audit since 2018, despite the requirement in the TAT Constitution and Bylaws.

“It has been my experience that tribal governments will pass code as a way to save face in the public eye,” said Angel Ellis, SPJ FOI Committee member, Native American Journalists Association board member, Mvskoke Media director and citizen of the Muscogee Nation. “It is willful deceit when they refuse to comply with the very laws they create. It is a practice well taught in colonialism, and I feel like the most underrepresented communities deserve so much better than politicized power plays that protect grift and fraud.”

“Beyond the alleged violations of the tribe’s own laws regarding transparency, TAT officials have also been implicated in illegal fiscal activity, which involved bribery between a contractor and tribe officials. The administration also purchased the property for $90-125 million and did not inform the citizens until the deal was finalized.

“The actions of Chairman Fox and his administration come at a greater cost than can be measured in mere dollars and cents. The malfeasance, combined with efforts to hide it from their constituents amounts to a betrayal of trust,” said Donald W. Meyers, SPJ FOI Committee member and Yakima (Washington) Herald-Republic reporter. “The people of the Three Affiliated Tribes counted on Chairman Fox and his administration to act in their best interests and give them an accounting of his stewardship. Not only were resources that could have been used to benefit the people squandered, but so has trust in the government, which will likely take longer to repay than the misspent funds.”

SPJ FOI Committee Chair Jodi Rave Spotted Bear is an enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes, as well as an SPJ at-large director and an SPJ Foundation Board member. Spotted Bear, who is also chair and founder of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, said, “The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation leaders undermine democracy on a daily basis while operating as an authoritarian government that represses opposition, silences citizen voices, and allows for ongoing secrecy of government spending.

“SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund, or give to the SPJ Foundation.

KX News reached out to Mark Fox’s office and was provided a statement that reads the following:

“The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation is committed to upholding freedom of the press. But we are greatly disappointed that a so-called “journalist” has chosen to use her current position within the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) to attempt to further personal political agendas. It is not the policy of the MHA Nation to comment on scurrilous accusations, but we offer the following response.

The MHA Nation is governed by its Constitution and our Tribal Business Council, its governing body. The members of the Tribal Business Council are elected by tribal membership and do not operate in secrecy. We remain committed to transparency for our people and the press.

KMHA broadcasts all our Tribal Business Council meetings, with the exception of when the council is discussing personnel, sensitive, and legal issues.

Disinformation flows freely on social media, misleading our tribal members with stories of corruption. While inflammatory posts and articles generate clicks, the reality is that the Tribal Business Council and Fox Administration adhere to the MHA Nation Constitution. We honor freedom of the press. We honor transparency. We do not condone false, baseless attacks that cast our nation in a bad, and false, light.”