Last week was another landmark in the long and sad epic of the Rocky Boy scandal.
Tony Belcourt, the once up-and-coming state lawmaker, and several other people, have pleaded guilty to felonies in connection with a series of bribes and thievery of federal funds that were designed to help residents of Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation and other areas of north-central Montana.
Belcourt says he’s ready to tell his side of the story of his sentencing hearing, but few people can imagine he could say much to change public opinion.
The whole scandal has been heart-wrenching for Rocky Boy residents, especially those who are not associated with either the established tribal leadership or the reform movement seeking to bring in a new order.
Belcourt served two terms in the Montana House, where he was a key Democratic member of the Appropriations Committee. When the tea party Republicans took control in 2011, he was an eloquent opponent of the proposals to cut social programs.
Despite his core beliefs, he was willing to work across the aisle, and unlike most of his Democratic colleagues, worked with Republicans in support of some pro-business legislation. He gained the respect of people on both sides of the aisle.
That’s why it was a bit of a surprise when he was defeated for renomination in 2012 primary by Clarena Brockie by three voters.
As they look back on the events of the past few month, Rocky Boy residents whom we have talked to are especially troubled by the fact that the money was designed to help the residents of the troubled reservation. The water project was aimed at getting drinkable water to far-flung parts of the reservation and other remote locations on the Hi-Line.
Creation of the Chippewa Cree Construction Co ., was seen as a way of making sure that the millions of federal dollars coming into the reservation would be used to create jobs for Rocky Boy residents, where the jobless figures sometimes reach astonishing rates. The profits would go back to the tribal government which could then invest the money in other projects. Instead, it went into the pockets of a few people.
The scandal has wrongly besmirched the reputation of the reservation and all its people. The whole mess was indeed centered at Rocky Boy and did involve a handful of Rocky Boy residents. But according to federal prosecutors, a good share of the loot was pocketed by people in Billings, Laurel and Havre. The plundering paid no attention to the reservation boundaries or ethnic divisions. Prosecutors say white people benefitted from the booty at least as much as Natives.
No one who is talking knows whether there will be further charges in the vast scandal, but Rocky Boy folks say federal agents are still poking around the reservation looking for answers to questions. People are bracing themselves for further revelations.
The whole episode has been painful for the closely knit Rocky Boy community. The vast majority of the residents had no idea any of this was going on.
Hopefully, this sad epic will, in the long run, have a good effect on Rocky Boy. We suspect that anyone who has an interest in transferring funds from the Rocky Boy treasury to their pockets will think twice in the future.
Rocky Boy has lots of needs. The federal government has not allocated anywhere near the amount needed to solve the many problems the federal government is largely responsible for.
But the federal government is responsible for making damn certain that the money that is allocated get to the people who need it.
(John Kelleher is managing editor of the Havre Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 406-265-6795, ext. 17, or 406-390-0798.)