SUQUAMISH — A group of Suquamish geoduck divers filed an estimated $12 million lawsuit on Monday against the Tribal Council and Suquamish Seafood Enterprises board members. The suit alleges that Seafood Enterprises overtaxed geoduck harvests and that the Tribal Council overstepped its authority to limit the number of divers.
The $12 million amount is what the divers claimed was illegally obtained by the tribe through taxes and/or not allowing qualified members to dive.
The suit, filed in tribal court, claims that the council — the seven-member governing body of the tribe — overruled a 1997 vote of the General Council (all adult enrolled members) opening up geoduck diving to everyone who holds treaty rights to do so. Up until that point the tribe had about 20 divers and selection of new divers was based on a lottery.
The other parties to the suit are people who were qualified to dive, but were not allowed to.
The suit also claims divers have been intimidated into signing a geoduck harvester contract and agreeing to give Suquamish Seafoods Enterprise a percentage of the harvest’s wholesale value. The suit states divers have been charged a tax of 65-80 percent, but according to the tribe’s by-laws, it can impose a tax rate of no more than 5 percent.
Under the contract the divers are not considered employees of Seafood Enterprises and do not receive retirement benefits. However, the divers do receive accidental death and dismemberment insurance, long and short term disability and health insurance.
Kevin George, one of the 15 plaintiffs in the case, said he left a good job in Seattle to become a geoduck diver. He has been diving since 1995.
“This was my opportunity to come over here, back to the tribe to build a retirement,” he said. He knew the risks but he also knew the rewards.
He hoped to earn in excess of $100,000 a year in a career that typically has a window of about 10 years.
The tribe trained George to become a diver and purchased all of his equipment, but he said the tribe has made several times that amount from what he and his lawyer Randal Brown call illegal taxes.
“This is not about trying to hog the income or privilege of diving,” he said.
But now with two of every three dollars going back to the tribe, George said he has nothing. He as with many of the plaintiffs has had to support a family and can’t afford to put money away.
Taking the case to court was a last ditch effort after attempts of unionizing were thwarted, George said.
Calls to Tribal Chairman Bennie Armstrong and Executive Director Wayne for comment concerning the lawsuit were not returned by deadline.
A preliminary hearing is set for March 11.