Defendants in a new set of charges alleging embezzlement at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation pleaded not guilty in federal District Court in Great Falls, with two of them entering not guilty pleas in amended embezzlement charges in a previously filed case.
Tony and Hailey Belcourt, along with James Howard Eastlick Jr. and Hunter Burns, and Burns and Eastlick’s construction company, Box Elder-based Hunter Burns Construction LLC, pleaded not guilty to charges conspiracy to embezzle federal grant and contract funds, theft from a federally funded Indian tribal government, and offering and accepting bribes. The charges also include fines for a corporate defendant.
Tony Belcourt is a former state representative, a former Business Committee council member at Rocky Boy, and CEO of the tribally owned Chippewa Cree Construction Corp.
The Belcourts pleaded not guilty in May in a previous case alleging embezzlement of federal stimulus money, along with Eastlick’s father, James Howard Eastlick, and his sister and brother-in-law, Tammy and Mark Leischner, all of Laurel.
Those five pleaded not guilty to amended charges in that case, also Thursday when the new indictments were unsealed.
John “Chance” Houle, a Business Committee member and former chair of that council as well as vice chair of the Chippewa Cree Construction board, was arraigned in May but the charges against him later were dropped.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad said early last month that the new charges in the previous case reflect new information found since the charges were first filed, but the basic allegations remain the same.
He said he could not comment on why the government was dropping the charges against Houle.
In the new charges, the government alleges that Burns and Eastlick Jr ., who the indictment says was a 49 percent owner and manager of Hunter Burns Construction, paid bribes to the Belcourts in exchange for Tony Belcourt awarding contracts in the Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Regional Water System project to the company.
The indictment says Chippewa Cree Construction paid Hunter Burns Construction hundreds of thousands of dollars for work laying water pipe and reseeding in the summer of 2009. Hunter Burns Construction in turn cut checks for $35,000 and $100,000 payable to Hailey Lee Belcourt, it says.
In the first indictment, the government alleges that the Belcourts and James Howard Eastlick and his daughter and son-in-law, the Leischners, used a complex series of transactions and dummy companies to embezzle federal stimulus act money allocated to the water project.
A Rocky Boy man awaiting his being sworn in — again — as the chair of the Business Committee has said his being removed as chair is connected to the indictments.
The Business Committee voted unanimously to remove Ken Blatt St. Marks as its chair in March, citing allegations of employee harassment including sexual harassment, misuse of Chippewa Cree Tribe’s money, and violating provisions of the tribe’s constitution.
He ran in the special election set to fill the slot opened by his removal, with several weeks of arguments — and an order by a tribal judge at Rocky Boy — taking him off and putting him back on the ballot, and finally ending with his winning the special election.
The election board then ruled the election was invalid due to problems with tribal IDs used in the election, but St. Marks said the tribal judge again ruled in his favor. A written order on that ruling has not yet been issued.
The Business Committee members — including Houle — issued a statement last Friday saying if the judge upholds St. Marks’ election, they again will remove him from office.
St. Marks has maintained from the start that the reason for his removal was his cooperation with federal investigators looking into allegations of fraud and embezzlement by tribal employees.
Fawn Hahn Tadios, who was granted a protection order against St. Marks for actions including sexual harassment, also has been indicted on charges she embezzled funds from the Rocky Boy Health Board of which she was CEO, including to pay for trips to visit her husband, Raymond “Jake” Parker, while he served a sentence for embezzling from the Chippewa Cree Tribe while he was chair of the Business Committee.