Feds accuse 15 people of stealing Yakama Nation scholarship funds

By Kate Prengaman, Yakima Herald-Republic

TOPPENISH, Wash. — Fifteen people, including an interim manager and former manager, are facing federal charges for allegedly stealing $179,000 worth of scholarships from the Yakama Nation Higher Education Program.

The suspects were awarded a total of 67 checks ranging from $1,000 to $6,500 for studies at colleges and universities that reported the students had never enrolled or completed coursework, according to the indictments handed down in U.S. District Court in Yakima.

According to investigators, the fraudulent scholarship applications were submitted between 2009 and 2012.

The tribe’s higher education program administered both federal Bureau of Indian Affairs student assistance funding and the tribe’s own scholarship program. Estimates of how much money was available for scholarships through the program each year was not available Wednesday.

Calls to the Yakama Nation Tribal Council requesting comment were not returned.

FBI agents and Yakama Nation police arrested 11 people on Tuesday, said Ayn Dietrich, an FBI spokeswoman in Seattle. They made court appearances in Yakima on Tuesday.

Those not arrested were expected to report to court this week, Dietrich said.

Among those indicted were Priscilla Marie Gardee, interim manager of the program, and Delford Neaman, former manager. Also indicted were Phillip Stevens, Anthony Linn Gardee, Sophia Leta Gardee, Tamera Jean Gardee, Latonia Wheeler, Cynthia A. Arthur, Crystal L. Miller, Arnetta Amy Blodgett, Brycene Allen Neaman, Gilbert Onepennee, Odessa P. Johnson, Phillip A. Burdeau Sr. and Susan Aleck.

According to program documentation from 2013, scholarship funding was to go to Yakama students attending a college or university full time. Awards were granted at the rate of $1,500 per academic year for undergraduate students and $3,000 a year for graduate students. Students who withdrew from school were required to refund their scholarships.