Must also pay $667K restitution; wife sentenced to two months, $156K restitution in Rocky Boy embezzlement
GREAT FALLS — At the end of a 3½ hour sentencing hearing that included extensive praise of the defendant, a U.S. district judge told a former state legislator and Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation tribal official he would have to pay the price for his role in a complex embezzlement scheme.
“(Tony) Belcourt occupied a position of trust within his community … ,” Judge Brian Morris said. “You’ve also betrayed the trust of your community, and that’s a very serious offense.”
Morris noted that Belcourt had no prior criminal history and had led a life of service, in the Chippewa Cree Tribe’s council, in the state Legislature, as head of the Chippewa Cree Construction Corp ., and in general working with and helping people on and off the reservation before pleading guilty in a plea agreement to three of multiple charges of fraud, embezzlement and bribery in six federal cases.
“But you’re going to have to pay a steep price,” Morris told Belcourt before sentencing him to 7½ years in federal prison with three years probation following, and ordered him to pay $667,183 in restitution.
Belcourt’s wife, Hailey Belcourt, received a much lighter sentence for her pleading guilty to three of the charges filed against her in five of the six cases charging Tony Belcourt.
Morris sentenced Hailey Belcourt to two months in prison followed by three years probation and ordered her to pay $156,183 in restitution.
Sobbing at times, Tony Belcourt told Morris that he had made mistakes, but he tried to be a good influence in Indian Country. He said as a half-Indian, half-white person, he has been torn between two worlds and tried to help bridge the gap between those worlds at Rocky Boy.
He said he was not trying to make excuses and asked for an opportunity to learn from what has happened to him.
“I’ve lost everything a man can lose except my family and my life,” Belcourt said.
In her tearful comments to the judge before sentencing, Hailey Belcourt said she knew what she did was wrong, but begged Morris to not take both of her children’s parents away, adding that her family is everything to her.
“They are victims of my misdeeds,” she said.
Her attorney, Jason Holden of Great Falls, asked the judge for a one-day sentence followed by probation. He said Belcourt was just a woman trying to raise her family, doing what her husband told her despite knowing she should not.
“This is not a woman motivated by greed,” he said.
Belcourt said she did little things her husband asked her to do. Morris asked if she knew that what she was doing was wrong.
“I did, but I didn’t ask … ,” she said. “I just chose not to argue, and I did what I was told.”
In both sentencing cases, Morris asked both the defense and prosecution where they would place the defendant in the pecking order of the six people he has or was scheduled to sentence.
“I think she’s a footnote, I really do,” Holden said of Hailey Belcourt.
Morris then asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad.
“Is she a footnote? Is she a comma? A period?” he asked.
Rostad said Belcourt is on the lower end of the scheme, saying her actions were about the same as Hunter Burns, who paid the Belcourts in return for receiving millions of dollars worth of contracts to construct the Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Water Project pipeline on the reservation.
He added that some people would rank as footnotes in the investigation — but they have not been charged.
Morris in July sentenced Burns, who also pleaded guilty in a plea agreement, to two months in prison followed by four months of house arrest and 3½ years probation, plus $125,000 in fines.
Morris noted that Belcourt had participated in several actions during the two years of fraud, bribery and embezzlement including using $62,000 of embezzled money to buy a house in Box Elder the Belcourts used for a rental, getting her parents to participate in hiding a $107,000 sale of cattle from the bank, and taking and depositing multiple checks including a $100,000 payment listed as a loan — which later was doctored once the federal investigation was underway. He also said she and her husband took the money and benefited from it.
“I cannot go with Mr. Holden’s suggestion … ,” Morris said. “I think it’s important you suffer some deprivation of your liberty.”
Hailey Belcourt did not contest any of the issues in the presentence investigation report or amount of restitution requested.
Tony Belcourt’s attorney, Larry Jent, argued several points in the presentence investigation report and argued the requested restitution was much too high.
Jent and Belcourt argued that what Belcourt received generally was for work he did or was in loans which he paid back.
Jent argued that Belcourt, who was the CEO and chief contracting officer of the tribally owned Chippewa Cree Construction Corp. building the water system and doing the rebuilding of extensive flood damage at the reservation — the reasons the federal funds and insurance payments used in the embezzlement were sent to Rocky Boy — was not a public official and that the prosecution had not proven him to be a leader in the embezzlement schemes.
But Rostad argued that Belcourt was involved in all of the actions in the cases related, and without him, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and insurance moneys embezzled could not have been used.
“Mr. Belcourt appears to be the hub of the wheel with the spokes going out in many directions,” he said.
Morris ruled against Jent’s motions.
When asked where Belcourt would be placed in the organization of the embezzlement scheme, Jent said the top organizer was Havre psychologist James Howard Eastlick Jr ., who worked at Rocky Boy and was directly or indirectly involved in all the cases. Eastlick Jr ., who is scheduled for sentencing Sept. 25, was indicted or was a relative or business partner of someone indicted in all of the involved cases.
But Rostad said Belcourt, who was the one in control of the money in every case, was the top of the chain.
He agreed with the defense that the crimes took place in a backdrop of some of the highest unemployment and poverty in the state, but that meant Belcourt was taking money from people who needed it the most. And he was the source of the money, he repeated.
“No one will be ranked higher. … There’s no doubt that Tony Belcourt is the hub of this wheel,” he said.