U.S. Attorney says fraud will be found and prosecuted
After another set of indictments charging six people with embezzling federal money from an American Indian reservation program were unsealed Thursday, Montana’s U.S. attorney said the project that lead to the indictments sends a clear message to everyone given a public trust.
“If you elect to embezzle, steal, if you plunder tax dollars intended for the betterment of your communities, you will be discovered, and you will be prosecuted, and you will be held accountable for your crimes,” U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said during a press conference following Thursday’s arraignments in federal court in Great Falls. “The citizens of Indian Country deserve better than to suffer corruption that diverts federal moneys into the pockets of a few when so many are in need.”
The press conference was held after six defendants pleaded not guilty to defrauding the federal government of $4.6 million sent by U.S. Health and Human Services to a program on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation intended to help children with severe emotional disorders.
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Cotter said the charges came after an investigation tied to The Guardians Project, a collaboration between different federal agencies with financial commitments to Indian Country in Montana and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office which he started in 2011. He said he started the project after Montana tribal officials regularly asked him to do more to end theft and corruption in the administration of federal grants and programs in Indian Country.
Joining him at the press conference were representatives of agencies involved in the investigation, including Scott Vito of the FBI, Steve Boyd of the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations Division and Gerald Roy of the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General.
The project’s investigations have led to eight indictments charging 25 people with embezzlement or fraud. Those indictments charge people from four of Montana’s seven Indian reservations, as well as alleged conspirators off the reservations. That includes two sets of indictments tied to Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, and indictments tied to the Blackfeet, Fort Peck and Crow reservations.
“But stay tuned,” an attorney at the press conference added.
Cotter said The Guardians Project is pursuing 25 more investigations in Indian Country, and said it will pursue more in the future.
The man recently re-elected as the chair of the Rocky Boy governing council, Ken Blatt St. Marks, says the Rocky Boy indictments are tied to the controversy over that chairmanship.
In a convoluted process where the tribe’s Election Board continually reversed itself over whether St. Marks was an eligible candidate, he won a special election July 30 with 40 percent of the vote. Acting chair Richard “Ricky” Morsette, one of the council members who voted to remove St. Marks from office, came in second with 28 percent of the vote.
The Election Board still has not sworn in St. Marks, saying they are resolving a protest filed about his candidacy and victory.
The other members of the Business Committee of the Chippewa Cree Tribe unanimously voted to suspend St. Marks, then remove him from office, citing neglect of duty and gross misconduct including employee harassment.
A judge later awarded the CEO of the tribe’s health department, Fawn Tadios, with a protection order prohibiting St. Marks from contacting her. Tadios, wife of former Business Committee Chair Raymond “Jake” Parker, said St. Marks had verbally and emotionally abused her and sexually harassed her starting almost immediately when he took office in November 2012.
In the hearing about the protection order, St. Marks denied the abuse and sexual harassment, saying he had yelled at Tadios over money missing from the health department budget.
He says his removal from office, and Tadios’ complaint, stem from his cooperating with federal investigators looking into allegations of abuse, fraud and embezzlement.
After St. Marks was removed from office six people were indicted on multiple charges of fraud and theft alleging they stole federal money allocated for the Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Regional Water Project.
The defendants in that indictment are Business Committee member and former Chair John “Chance” Houle, who voted to remove St. Marks from office, Chippewa Cree Construction Corp. CEO Tony Belcourt, a former Business Committee member and state representative; his wife, Hailey Belcourt; and Laurel residents James Eastlick, his daughter Tammy Leischner and her husband, Mark Leischner.
The U.S. government later indicted Tadios on charges she embezzled federal money allocated to the health department, including money she used to visit her husband in federal prison.
Parker pleaded guilty in 2011, the day after he resigned as chair, to embezzling nearly $60,000 in tribal funds by using a credit card issued to, and paid for, by the tribe for his personal use.
Health and Human Services Special Agent In Charge Gerald Roy said hundreds of millions of dollars comes into Indian Country in Montana, and in other nearby states, to provide programs and services. Especially at a time when those programs are under attack in Washington, fraud and abuse must end, he said.
“The Guardians is a fantastic example of all of us coming together and saying we’re not going to stand for it and we are going to do something about it,” Roy said.
“It goes beyond federal law enforcement and prosecutors,” he added. “We are reaching out to tribal leaders and law enforcement to enlist their help as well.”
Cotter also commented on help from the tribes, complimenting the Blackfeet Tribe’s office of internal affairs for its assistance in the investigation. The Blackfeet should be commended for creating that office, and other tribes should consider following that example, he said.
He said that, once the 25 ongoing investigations are completed, he believes the collaboration in of The Guardian Project will continue to fight fraud and theft in Indian Country. Stopping fraud and embezzlement from programs intended to help people in need is a priority, he said.
“I believe that it’s a very worthy project. … We came together in 2011, and there is much that we are looking at, but there is no reason that this cannot be something that goes on into the future,” Cotter said. “These relationships that have been established between the federal agencies and the specialists … in this particular area is so critical to ensuring that fraud is detected and it is prosecuted. These projects project serve as a deterrent to others who have corrupt intentions.”