A couple suing a non-profit organization for reimbursement of past wages won their lawsuit in Judge Keith Levy's courtroom Wednesday at Juneau District Court.
A six-person jury awarded Gareth and Eileen Wright the full $63,297.75 the pair asked for in its complaint against Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp 2, Inc. and Spirit Village, Inc.
ANB was held accountable for $56,373.56 in unpaid wages, while Spirit Village is liable $6,924.19 for heating fuel, truck repairs and snow removal.
"I am so exhausted," a tearful Eileen said after the verdict. "Our lives were put into poverty because of this."
The Wrights' lawyer withdrew from the case 10 days before trial.
"We couldn't pay him anymore, we ran out of money," Gareth said. The couple represented themselves.
"We are so thankful to the jury, through all our bumbling and stumbling they saw what was right," Gareth said.
Gareth established phone testimony from Hoonah mill owner Wesley Tyler, who corroborated his work at the site.
He also called his wife Eileen to the stand and submitted evidence of pay stubs from ANB.
"(Robert) Loescher told us they were running low on funds but would be seeking more grants for payment," Eileen said.
Loescher serves on the governing bodies of both ANB Camp 2 and Spirit Village. He is the corporate secretary for Spirit Village.
Eileen also testified ANB Camp 2 president Andy Ebona told them to continue to keep up the properties, as they would be securing more grant money.
In 2002, ANB applied for a $1 million planning grant from the federal Department of Justice to build a halfway house on the site of the old Whitestone Logging Camp seven miles outside Hoonah on land owned by Sealaska Corporation. Another grant for $1 million went to the Hoonah Indian Association with ANB Camp 2 as a sub-grantee. A cookhouse and 16-unit bunkhouse were refurbished. The construction project was established as Spirit Village, Inc.
Sealaska served an eviction notice to spirit Village in Dec. 2009. Sealaska's eviction notice was upheld Aug. 13. Spirit Village filed for bankruptcy protection in June, but was denied. Sealaska evicted all persons on their property and Spirit Village allowed their assets to go to Sealaska. One asset was an Internet company that employed Eileen.
That wireless Internet originally was established by Spirit Village as a concept to provide service to assist with parole officers, inmates and their families as well as education. It expanded to provide connectivity to the community of Hoonah and Icy Straight Point Tourism Company.
According to Gareth's opening testimony, he had been a "jack-of-all-trades" at the site of Spirit Village and his paychecks came from ANB Camp 2. Eileen was in charge of an Internet service provided there. The couple resided in a trailer on site as a condition of their employment.
ANB and Spirit Village admitted in opening statements that they owed the Wrights past wages. However, as the Wrights produced time cards and dates in court the defendant's position changed.
On Tuesday, John Rice, attorney for ANB and Spirit Village, called Robert Loescher to the stand.
"We admitted in opening statements that SVI did owe some wages," Rice said to Loescher. "After hearing the testimony from the past two days, have you reconsidered your position?"
Loescher responded he was doubtful the amount was as much as they were claiming.
"I think our relationship was of mutual convenience," Loescher said. "But as for wages we had no contract, we had run out of funds... I used my good office from time to time to try and get money to them... they did receive some modest expense reimbursement and I am hopeful it helped at the time."
Loescher said a promise was not made to the Wrights once grants ran out in 2007, but they were asked, if they were going to be there, to take on watchmen responsibilities and they would have the opportunity to participate in future construction projects.
Loescher said the Wrights benefited by living in the Spirit Village trailer, and Eileen had employment via the Internet service. Loescher said it was the Wrights' choice to live there or leave. Loescher also said Gareth's timecards were just "cookie cutter outlines" with no incident reports; encounters or what was accomplished for those hours.
"It's easy to feel sorry for them," Rice said in closing arguments. "What they did show was they got free housing for minimal services. ... Who waits 2 1/2 years after their last pay check and still thinks they are employed?"
Gareth countered by saying, "Ask yourselves why after 2 1/2 years we are suing? Ask yourself if the Wrights considered dedicating themselves to the project... that we were doing the same thing we had been doing and submitting our time cards to the same place our checks had come from. Why did they continue to accept time cards? We simply stayed because we were promised more work..."
Loescher declined to comment through Rice.
According to Department of Justice Special Agent Wayne Hawney, there were two grants totaling $2.5 million awarded to ANB Camp 2 and the Hoonah Indian Association for the intent of establishing Spirit Village.
"I understand that the camp has not been completed," Hawney said. "And I have contacted our grant people. We are just in a look-see right now to determine what is going on and how we want to proceed. I understand the assets of Spirit Village are being sold off, assets that the Justice Department paid for."
Hawney also said the grant funds allow for salaries to be paid for individuals to distribute the funds. Hawney said he believed Andrew Ebona received upwards of $58,000 yearly.
Ebona is listed by the American Indian Business Network as ANB Camp 2's president, project manager of the Hoonah Cultural Justice Spirit Center, and president of Spirit Village's board.
"I guess I believed that ANB Camp 2 and Spirit Village were one and the same," Eileen said. "Since they had the same presidents and a lot of same board members."
An e-mail statement from Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris after the eviction proceedings stated that, "two parties occupying space at Sealaska's Whitestone Camp property were without valid leases and regrettably, after several years of effort, we are having to move to protect our investment and land.
"One of the occupants originally entered into the lease in Dec. 2002 with the intent to develop halfway housing, counseling, rehabilitation and cultural training for individuals with substance abuse challenges.
"Sealaska had high hopes for the tenants to realize their vision as it met a community need, had general support and aligned with our core cultural values. Unfortunately they were unable to maintain a valid lease.
"The site has considerable infrastructure that must be maintained on behalf of our tribal member shareholders. Once this matter is resolved Sealaska will restore the infrastructure and maintain the assets and land base. We hope to generate opportunity to maximize the use of the land in the future for the benefit of all tribal member shareholders."
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.
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