GREAT FALLS — Seven framed pictures hang on a wall of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Great Falls, each bearing the name of an operation that is part of a major push to root out corruption and theft from federal programs in Montana's Indian Country.
The 2-year-old Guardians Project is the only one of its kind in the nation, and it aims to curb the theft of federal money intended for Montana's seven Indian reservations.
So far, the project has netted the indictments of 25 people, including six arraigned Thursday on fraud, conspiracy and embezzlement charges in a Blackfeet program for troubled children.
There are more prosecutions to come, federal prosecutors said. The wall has space for a lot of pictures.
U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said he began the project after tribal leaders asked his office to do more to put a stop to corruption and theft in the administration of their federal programs. The prosecutions to date — and the ones still to come — are meant to send a message that federal authorities will go after anybody who embezzles or steals tax dollars meant for their community.
"The citizens of Indian Country deserve better than to suffer corruption that diverts federal monies into the pockets of a few when so many are in need," Cotter said Thursday.
The cases are both small and large, with the alleged offenders ranging from low-level administrative assistants to tribal councilmen and a former state legislator. The issues vary, requiring assistance from a wide array of federal agencies, including investigators from the Interior Department, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
So far, indictments have been leveled against individuals in programs on the Blackfeet, Rocky Boy's, Crow and Fort Peck reservations.
The most recent case involves six people who oversaw the Po'Ka Project, a $9.3 million program for troubled youth on the Blackfeet reservation that is now defunct. The six, including leaders Francis Onstad and Delyle "Shanny" Augare, are accused of embezzling money from the project and doctoring invoices to embellish the contributions the tribe was required to make to keep the program going.
They pleaded not guilty to the charges Thursday.
Before that, six others were charged with using a shell company and intermediaries to divert hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal aid for a pipeline project to provide fresh drinking water to the Rocky Boy's reservation. Those indicted include former state Rep. Tony Belcourt and tribal councilman John Chance Houle.
They pleaded not guilty in May.
Eight people on the Crow Reservation were accused of diverting more than $500,000 from tribal accounts by charging companies working on the reservation for historic preservation office oversight. Instead of turning the payments over to the tribe, they kept the money for themselves, prosecutors said.
Three defendants are scheduled to go to trial next month, while four others pleaded guilty. The eighth died in December.
The smaller cases include the one against Jerome Bruce Seaman, a former Fort Peck Community College math instructor and grant administrator who was sentenced in July to six months in prison for spending more than $19,000 in federal grant money on personal travel.
Then there is Fawn Tadios, the Chippewa Cree tribe's suspended health clinic board director, who is accused of stealing more than $50,000 to visit her husband, former tribal chairman Jake Parker Jr ., who is in prison for theft of tribal money. She pleaded not guilty in June.
Kaylene Red Wolf, who was the payroll clerk for Lodge Grass Public Schools on the Crow Reservation, was indicted in July on theft charges for allegedly using her position to obtain duplicate salary payments and pay for hours she didn't work. She has pleaded not guilty.
Patrick Charles Thomas was indicted in April on accusations he falsely claimed he was denied a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan for his ranch and farm on the Blackfeet reservation. Prosecutors said Thomas wanted a share of the $760 million settlement the USDA made in 2011 with Native American farmers and ranchers who had been denied equal access to credit because of discrimination.
He pleaded guilty to lesser charges in July in a deal with prosecutors.