Havre Daily News
Rocky Boy tribal court supported the tribal council's position Thursday and ordered Village Grocery owner Debbie St. Pierre to pay $5,500 in back taxes by Tuesday or lose her business license and close her store.
Village Grocery is the only private seller of cigarettes on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
The decision came Thursday following a hearing on June 22. Failure to pay or close the store will result in a contempt of court charge, acting Chief Judge Joe Morsette wrote in his opinion.
St. Pierre said she plans to appeal the decision.
St. Pierre has been fighting a tobacco tax increase since it was passed by the tribal council on Jan. 6. The council has had a 5-cent cigarette tax in place for more than a decade. On Jan. 6, it raised the tax to 55 cents.
The state cigarette tax rose $1 on Jan. 1 to $1.70. The tribal council said it was raising its tax, in part, in response to the state increase. The state tax is not collected on cigarettes sold on Rocky Boy.
At the end of April the tribe revoked St. Pierre's business license for failure to pay the new tax. The tribe said St. Pierre bought 1,000 cartons of cigarettes allotted by the tribe without paying the 55-cent tax she owed. St. Pierre disputes the number of cartons she owes taxes on.
The tribal council's decision to revoke a business license must be supported or denied by tribal court. In mid-May, Morsette gave St. Pierre, her lawyer and her lay advocate two weeks to prepare an argument against revocation of her license. Due to scheduling problems, that hearing was held on June 22.
St. Pierre's lawyer, Robert LaFountain of Billings, argued that revocation of the business license was not an option in trying to collect back taxes under the tribe's tobacco code, which he said calls for fines if a person fails to pay the tax.
LaFountain also questioned the validity of the tribe's tobacco tax, which he said required approval by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
LaFountain asked that the court allow the tribe and St. Pierre to settle the matter of back taxes separately while St. Pierre continued to operate her business.
Morsette decided Thursday the tribe's tax was valid and ordered revocation of the license if the taxes are not paid.
St. Pierre said she will continue to argue that the tax ordinance is not valid.
"We're not done because they didn't listen to the solicitor, which is supposed to be the top dog," St. Pierre said. On June 24, two days after the hearing, St. Pierre said she sent Morsette a letter from the Department of the Interior's acting associate solicitor of Indian affairs, Edith R. Blackwell. The letter came in response to a letter St. Pierre sent the office in April.
Blackwell wrote to St. Pierre: "If the Tribe's constitution requires the Secretary's approval of a tribal ordinance or resolution, as it does of taxes on nonmembers, the tribe must submit that ordinance or resolution to the Superintendent for approval."
The tribe's lawyer, Dan Belcourt, said during the June hearing that the tobacco tax is valid, even though it was not approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior, because the department chooses not to review the tribe's decisions. Belcourt presented a letter to the court from a department representative to that effect. That letter was not made available to the Havre Daily News by the court.
Belcourt had argued that tax ordinances are supposed to be subject to review, not approval of the Department of the Interior, while LaFountain argued the ordinances require approval.
In his opinion, Morsette said, "The subject to review is optional for the Chippewa-Cree Tribe."
St. Pierre said she will use Blackwell's letter in her appeal.
"Even if they are self-governance, they aren't above the law," she said.
St. Pierre has also been the subject of a criminal investigation. No criminal charges have been brought against St. Pierre.
The tribe has not allotted St. Pierre any more cigarettes free of the state tax since March. In April the tribe opened its own cigarette store, Past Time, and asked reservation retailers to buy cigarettes wholesale through that store.
St. Pierre did not buy cigarettes through Past Time. She would not say where she obtained cigarettes for sale at her store.
In mid-April, tribal police raided St. Pierre's store and confiscated her cigarettes, which police said were being sold illegally without the required state tax stamp.
State Department of Revenue officials have said that cigarettes without the stamp are contraband, whether found on a reservation or elsewhere in the state.
St. Pierre has said the state told her she was allowed to buy her cigarettes where she chose.