Havre Daily News
Rocky Boy tribal police have confiscated cigarettes from the reservation's only private seller, who has refused to pay the tribe's new 55-cent tobacco tax.
"I'm not going to pay the tax because it was passed illegally in the first place," Village Grocery owner Debbie St. Pierre said. "Once they put me out of business, they have no competition at all. They can charge whatever they want."
St. Pierre, who is a member of the Rocky Boy school board, said she plans to fight the tax in federal court.
She also said she thinks the raid on her store last Wednesday by five tribal police officers a few days after the tribe opened its own smoke shop is not coincidental.
According to an affidavit presented to St. Pierre during the raid, St. Pierre has been selling cigarettes without a tax stamp.
Tribal chairman John "Chance" Houle said the sale of possible black market cigarettes could jeopardize an agreement the tribe has with the state that allows the tribe 18,000 cartons of cigarettes without paying the state's $1.70-a-pack tax. The state tax increased by $1 on Jan. 1.
St. Pierre would not say where she is purchasing her cigarettes.
The tribal council increased the tribe's cigarette tax from 5 cents to 55 cents on Jan. 6. On Jan. 7, St. Pierre received a letter from Richard Sangrey, the tribal council's chief of staff, informing her of the tax increase. The letter included a copy of the previous day's agenda.
She appealed the decision to the tribal council, which voted unanimously, 6-0, to deny a repeal of the tax.
St. Pierre wrote a letter to Sangrey, dated Jan. 25, asking for proof that the public was given advance notice of the Jan. 6 meeting and that public hearings were held. She also asked for other documents.
"I cannot pay this tax increase and survive as a business," she wrote. "I would like a copy of the approval of the Secretary of the Interior to the amendment to the tribal code in 1972 as well as this recent amendment. If the Business Committee (tribal council) cannot provide me with written proof that the Secretary of Interior approved the amendment to the code in 1972 as well as the recent amendment then I refuse to pay excessive taxes."
Five days later, St. Pierre wrote to Houle that the tax increase will mean an upfront cost to her of $600 to $800 a day. She said her store had already purchased its allotment of 1,000 cartons, reserved from the tribe's 18,000, under the previous 5-cent tax rate.
"We are all getting tired of hearing 'self governance' as an excuse for violating our rights," she wrote. "... As an Indian woman, holding all the rights of creation and personal sovereignty intact, I am fighting this battle alone because I am alone. There is no one else on this reservation suffering from this tax burden but me ..."
Houle responded in a letter on Feb. 2: "Contrary to your assertion, the tax increase is across the board, and applied to all retail sales on the Reservation including all tribally owned businesses and privately owned businesses. The Business Committee has not only the right, but the obligation, under the Chippewa Cree Tribe's Constitution, to raise revenues through taxation of commercial activities within the reservation in order to provide governmental services to the tribe and its individual members."
Houle wrote that any court action on the part of St. Pierre would be "frivolous" and the tribe would seek from her the cost of its defense.
On March 7, St. Pierre used up her allotment of state tax-free cigarettes, said Marilyn Christensen, a compliance specialist with the state Department of Revenue. The tribe has not authorized any more purchases for St. Pierre, she said.
Chippewa Cree Development Corp. financial manager Bob Swan said all of the tribe's state tax-free cigarettes should now be distributed by the tribe's new smoke shop, Past Time, which opened April 10. He said St. Pierre can get her cigarettes through Past Time at a wholesale price.
In March and April, St. Pierre wrote letters to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the Office of Self Governance in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of the Interior complaining of the tribe's tax decision.
On April 13, five tribal police officers entered St. Pierre's store and confiscated all of her cigarettes. Criminal investigator Grace Her Many Horses presented St. Pierre with a search warrant and affidavit that included statements from Houle and Swan saying that St. Pierre was selling cigarettes without a state tax stamp.
Lee Baerlocher, a bureau chief at the state Department of Revenue, said Monday that cigarettes sold on the reservation must have a Montana state stamp.
St. Pierre said she contacted the state Department of Revenue and was told by Christensen that because she is on a reservation, she can purchase cigarettes from wherever she'd like.
Christensen said today the cigarette packs should still have a state tax stamp. If St. Pierre did not purchase them through a retailer authorized to distribute to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, she would have to pay the state tax on cigarettes from any other retailer.
St. Pierre said the tribe wants a monopoly on cigarette sales.
Swan said that's not so.
"It's not to stifle competition at all," Swan said. "The tribe could have gone along with the state and said we're going to charge the same thing as the state."
St. Pierre said the tribe's 13-year-old tobacco agreement with the state is invalid because it was never approved by the U.S. Department of Interior.
The tribe's attorney, Daniel Belcourt, said the tribe's agreement with the state would not have needed federal approval.
Swan repeated the concern that the selling of illegally obtained cigarettes on the reservation could jeopardize the tribe's agreement with the state.
"It would be something that we would certainly look at," Baerlocher said about the sale of cigaretters without a tax stamp. "I don't know if it would jeopardize (the agreement)."