Chippewa Cree tribal chair ousted again

This April 17, 2013 photo shows Kenneth Blatt St. Marks at his home in Box Elder. St. Marks, the former chairman of the Chippewa Cree tribe, is participating in a federal investigation into corruption on the reservation that includes money missing from a $361 million pipeline project to bring fresh drinking water to the reservation.  Matt Volz/Associated Press

This April 17, 2013 photo shows Kenneth Blatt St. Marks at his home in Box Elder. St. Marks, the former chairman of the Chippewa Cree tribe, is participating in a federal investigation into corruption on the reservation that includes money missing from a $361 million pipeline project to bring fresh drinking water to the reservation. Matt Volz/Associated Press

By The Associated Press

GREAT FALLS (AP) — The executive body of the Rocky Boy’s Chippewa Cree tribes in north-central Montana voted Monday to expel chairman Ken Blatt St. Marks for the third time.

The Great Falls Tribune reported that in an opinion issued Monday, the Chippewa Cree Business Committee said they found St. Marks has “committed gross misconduct and neglected his duty.”

The on-again, off-again chairman was first elected chair of the committee in 2012 and since that time has been ousted by the committee on two other occasions after theft, fraud, sexual harassment and other allegations. St. Marks has been reinstated after lengthy court battles and re-elections. He was most recently elected by voters again in February.

St. Marks has never been officially charged in tribal, state or federal court based on allegations in the committee’s opinion. He has said the committee’s actions are in retaliation for his cooperation with federal authorities investigating corruption.

The U.S. Interior Department ruled to that effect in December, saying the Chippewa Cree Business Committee violated federal whistleblower laws when it terminated St. Marks as its chairman in March 2013. The department determined there was sufficient evidence to indicate St. Marks was removed by the tribal council at the time because he was cooperating with a federal corruption investigation on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

About a dozen people have been convicted or pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges over the awarding of construction contracts and kickbacks paid to tribal officials.

In this week’s dismissal, the Chippewa Cree Business Committee said St. Marks has defrauded the tribe of more than $2.3 million in fraudulent charges and shoddy or incomplete work performed by his construction company, Arrow Enterprises. St. Marks is also charged with attempting to improperly “freeze” tribal bank accounts and with interfering with an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding.

“They just keep on making up lies, they keep on saying I stole money and I keep on telling them the same thing — ‘Go get me indicted,'” St. Marks told the Tribune on Tuesday. “I’ve never went through the tribal court on these charges. The courts have never, ever charged me with anything. It’s the tribal council that keeps acting like judge, jury and executioner.”

The most recent termination of St. Marks means the reservation will need to schedule the fourth election since November 2012.

Chippewa-Cree tribal leaders indicted on corruption charges

Matt Volz Great Falls Tribune

June 24, 2014

 

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(Photo: AP Photo/Matt Volz )

HELENA – Two Chippewa Cree tribal leaders were indicted Tuesday on charges they took cash and vehicles as kickbacks on lucrative business contracts awarded for work on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in north-central Montana.

The charges against Chippewa Cree Business Committee member John “Chance” Houle and former chairman Bruce Sunchild are the latest in an ongoing federal investigation into corruption on Montana’s Indian reservations. The investigation already has resulted in a round of convictions at Rocky Boy earlier this year, including a guilty plea by state Rep. Tony Belcourt in April to theft, bribery and tax-evasion charges.

Houle pleaded not guilty Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong in Great Falls. Sunchild was arrested after he failed to appear in court Tuesday morning. He later pleaded not guilty.

Larry Denny, a spokesman for the tribe, said he was unaware of the charges against Houle and Sunchild, and he declined to comment.

Houle was originally indicted with Belcourt in 2013, but federal prosecutors dropped the charges against him without explanation. In three new indictments unsealed Tuesday, Houle faces 10 charges that include conspiracy to embezzle tribal funds, theft, bribery and obstruction of justice.

Houle received nearly $307,000 between 2009 and 2011 in exchange for contracts he awarded Hunter Burns Construction Co., which was partly owned by James Eastlick Jr., a former psychologist at the reservation’s health clinic, prosecutors said in the indictments.

Eastlick, who is not named as a defendant, previously pleaded guilty to bribing Belcourt. Prosecutors said in the new indictments that Eastlick and Houle falsified documents to cover their tracks after learning of the federal investigation.

Houle also is accused of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from a bank account for the Chippewa Cree Rodeo Association, which prosecutors said had deposits of $2 million between 2009 and 2012 from rodeo events and contributions from tribes and businesses.

Houle and another tribal member disguised the payments to look like legitimate rodeo expenses, prosecutors said. He received cash and to buy a vehicle for his daughter, the indictment said.

Houle also used an intermediary to transfer money from the rodeo account to Belcourt’s wife to pay for a home in Box Elder, prosecutors said.

Houle is charged with fabricating documents to make the transfers appear legitimate once they learned of the federal investigation.

Sunchild was charged in a separate indictment with conspiracy to embezzle tribal money, theft and bribery.

Prosecutors said Sunchild and Belcourt authorized $300,000 in payments to a consulting company owned by Havre businessman Shad Huston. In return, Huston bought a sport utility vehicle for about $25,000 in 2011, and the vehicle’s title was transferred to Sunchild’s daughter, prosecutors said.

The next year, Sunchild authorized the payment of $27,200 to another Huston business and received $15,000 in return, prosecutors said.

Belcourt is not named as a defendant in the new indictments.