Belcourt pleads guilty: 'Mistakes were made'
April 3, 2014
A former tribal and state official pleaded guilty in federal embezzlement cases Wednesday, saying afterward the whole story has not yet been told.
"I admit mistakes were made," Tony Belcourt said Wednesday afternoon after the change-of-plea hearing in federal court in Great Falls. "But I want the full truth to come out at my sentencing hearing."
Belcourt, 42, was CEO and contracting officer at Chippewa Cree Construction Corp. while it was working on building a regional water system and on repairing damage from floods over the last five years. He pleaded guilty to one charge in each of four out of six cases in which he was charged with awarding contracts, with some payments double-billed or fraudulent. He also admitted that he accepted payments back from the contractors. He used the money to buy a business and a rental property and to cover debts of his ranch on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Two cases filed this year indicted Belcourt and his wife, Hailey, on tax and bank fraud.
Belcourt was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat in 2008 and 2010, losing his bid for re-nomination in 2012.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris told Belcourt before he made his plea - as Morris did before co-defendant Hunter Burns entered a guilty plea in a previous hearing - that pleading guilty meant he would never be able to vote or hold public office, as well as not being able to own guns.
Hailey Belcourt is scheduled to plead guilty to charges in federal court in Great Falls today.
Codefendant James Howard Eastlick Jr. is scheduled to change pleas in a hearing May 1.
Tony Belcourt had to enter pleas at 2 p.m. on two new indictments as he missed the arraignment hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday. Judge Brian Morris entered not guilty pleas on the new indictments before proceeding with the change-of-plea hearing.
Morris originally suggested sentencing Belcourt July 10, the same day as his co-defendant Hunter Burns, who pleaded guilty in a Monday morning hearing to filing false claims in a construction contract with Chippewa Cree Construction paid by federal funds.
Belcourt attorney Larry Jent asked for more time, saying Belcourt is hiring a sentencing expert to help draft the defense's sentencing recommendations.
Morris later issued an order setting Belcourt's sentencing for Aug. 14.
Tony Belcourt was indicted in six cases, his wife in five.
Codefendants in two cases are James Howard Eastlick Jr. and Burns, with Hailey Belcourt indicted in only one of those cases. The codefendant in another case is former Havre school board chair Shad Huston, and the codefendants in yet another case are Eastlick Jr.'s father, sister and brother-in-law, James Howard Eastlick Sr. and Tammy and Mark Leischner, all of Laurel.
Huston, Eastlick Sr. and the Leischners still are scheduled to go on trial, with Huston's trial set for June 9 and the trial of the others May 12.
The indictments involve contracts to build the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System and to replace the multi-million clinic on the reservation, destroyed by the 2010 flood.
Hunter Burns pleaded guilty to billing the construction corporation, the lead contractor in both projects, for startup costs he listed as $15,000 in his bid on a $1.7 million contract Belcourt awarded Hunter Burns Construction LLC.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad said Burns sent an invoice for $100,000 in contract mobilization costs rather than the $15,000 in his bid.
"It was approved by Mr. Belcourt and $100,000 walked out the door," Rostad said.
In its offer of proof, the government said $90,000 immediately went out in payments apparently not related to mobilization costs, including to Burns, Eastlick Jr. and to a Chippewa Cree Business Committee councilman, not named, who also was a board member of Chippewa Cree Construction.
Burns later was paid another $15,000 for his mobilization costs, the offer of proof says.
Belcourt pleaded guilty to theft from an Indian tribal organization receiving federal funds in the case involving Eastlick Sr. and the Leischners, to accepting a bribe in the case involving Huston, to accepting a bribe in one of the cases involving Burns, and to tax fraud for not reporting $135,000 in income Hailey Belcourt received from Burns in 2009.
In a complex plea arrangements, defendants are pleading guilty to charges in some cases and the state will dismiss other charges in those cases and the charges in other cases.
Tony and Hailey Belcourt, Burns and Eastlick Jr. each are pleading guilty to some cases and not others, apparently covering all six indictments involving the Belcourts.
Tony Belcourt agreed in his plea deal Wednesday to forfeit a rental house in Box Elder although the title is in Hailey Belcourt's name.
Rostad said that the forfeiture is in Tony Belcourt's plea agreement because Hailey Belcourt is not pleading guilty in that case, which involves Eastlick Sr. and the Leischners.