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|Thursday, 17 July, 2014|
Montana tops federal corruption prosecutions
GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) — Montana has had more corruption prosecutions than any other federal court district in the nation in recent months, mainly because of an effort to target fraud in tribal programs, the state's U.S. Attorney's Office says.
According to a study from a Syracuse University-affiliated research group, 18 people were prosecuted on federal corruption charges in Montana between October 2013 and April 2014. No other federal judicial district in the nation had more than 15.
A news release this week from the Montana U.S. Attorney's Office, which prosecutes crimes in the state's federal court system, cited the study's findings as stemming from the success of its Guardians program, which targets fraud and official abuse involving federal funds.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad said the effort is a collaboration between federal prosecutors in his office, the FBI and the IRS, established in October 2011 in response to concerns over fraud in the spending of federal stimulus funds provided in 2009.
As a result of those concerns, fighting corruption has become a focus for Montana's federal attorneys, Rostad told the Great Falls Tribune (http://gftrib.com/1kiBZfm).
He pointed to a case involving the siphoning of funds for a $33 million water project on the Rocky Boy's Reservation as an example.
Compared to violent crime cases, where investigative work focuses on interviewing witnesses and gathering physical evidence, white-collar crime investigations involve pouring over financial information like bank account records to untangle complex plots.
“They're very document-intensive, very time-intensive,'' Rostad said. ``An incredible amount of green eye-shade work.''
In the news release, U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter, the chief federal prosecutor for Montana's judicial district, lauded work done by federal investigators.
“Their efforts have unearthed widespread criminal activity and flagrant abuses of trust with regard to federal programs and grants designed to provide for the common good of our Indian communities,'' Cotter said.
Woman sentenced for embezzling from Jemez Pueblo
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A Jemez Pueblo woman has been sentenced to five years' probation for embezzling more than $18,000 from the tribe.
Federal prosecutors say 48-year-old Mary Cathy Sabado was sentenced Monday.
A hearing has yet to be scheduled to determine the amount of restitution Sabado will be required to pay.
Sabado pleaded guilty in February to charges of embezzlement and theft from a tribal organization.
She admitted to embezzling funds between February 2010 and October 2011 while she was the coordinator for the Jemez Vocational Rehabilitation Project.
Prosecutors say Sabado used purchase orders and a tribal credit card to make unauthorized purchases for her personal use.
The case was investigated by the Albuquerque office of the FBI.
Blackfeet man appeals sentence in fraud conviction
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Blackfeet man convicted of participating in a scheme to defraud a federally funded youth program is taking his case to a federal appeals court in an attempt to have his 3 1/2 -year prison sentence reduced, his attorney said Thursday.
Delyle “Shanny'' Augare was sentenced to 44 months in prison and ordered to pay $1 million in restitution on June 24 after pleading guilty to conspiracy, embezzlement and income-tax evasion charges.
Augare filed a notice of appeal Monday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. His attorney, Colin Stephens, said he is asking the appellate court to reconsider U.S. District Judge Brian Morris' ruling that Augare participated in a sophisticated fraud scheme.
If the appeals court rules in Augare's favor, the guidelines for Augare's sentencing would be reduced. But, Stephens said the guidelines aren't restrictive and Morris could still impose the same 3 1/2-year sentence.
“It's up to Judge Morris,'' Stephens said.
Augare was the assistant director of the Po'Ka Project, a program for troubled youth on the northwestern Montana reservation that received $9.3 million in federal funding between 2005 and 2011.
The tribe was expected to contribute to an increasing share of the program's expenses as time went on, but the project shut down when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services money ran out.
Prosecutors said Augare and five other defendants embezzled money from the program and doctored invoices to exaggerate what the tribe was contributing to its share of the cost. Augare and the program's director, Francis Onstad, received the stiffest punishments in the scheme.
Onstad has not filed an appeal.
Augare's son, Shawn Augare was sentenced in May to nine months in prison after pleading guilty to bank fraud related to the Po'Ka scheme. Prosecutors said Shawn Augare cashed and deposited forged checks from a bank account that Delyle Augare and Onstad used to launder the embezzled money.
Delyle Augare also is the father of Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, who has not been implicated in the fraud scheme.
Group's want to see Montana Judge's racist emails
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A group of American Indians wants a court to preserve and eventually release an investigative file containing inappropriate emails sent by a federal judge, including a racist message involving President Barack Obama.
Two Indian advocacy groups from Montana and South Dakota and a member of the Crow tribe filed a petition in U.S. District Court in California asking for the file to be preserved as evidence.
The groups want to know if Chief District Judge Richard Cebull made biased decisions from the bench. Their next step will be to file a lawsuit seeking public release of the documents, plaintiffs' attorney Lawrence Organ said Wednesday.
Cebull was investigated after forwarding a racist message involving Obama. A judicial review panel found he sent hundreds of emails from his federal account that showed disdain for blacks, Indians, Hispanics, women, certain religions and others. He was publicly reprimanded and retired last year.
The investigation found no evidence of bias in his rulings. Organ said the only way to know that for sure is through the release of the emails.
“The fundamental principles of our entire legal system fall apart if a judge doesn't come in with a neutral position,'' Organ said. “If there are other decision makers involved, we're not asking for their private email accounts. All we want to see are the emails accounts they used as government officials.''
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has said its file on Cebull is confidential.
Plaintiffs in the case are South Dakota-based advocacy group Four Directions, Montana-based Indian People's Action, and Sara Plains Feather, a member of southeastern Montana's Crow Tribe.
Four Directions was involved in a voting rights lawsuit that sought to force several Montana counties to establish satellite voting districts on reservations. Cebull ruled against the Indian plaintiffs in that case, which was later settled after the 9th Circuit overturned his ruling.
Cebull himself and 10 others requested the misconduct investigation after The Great Falls Tribune reported the judge forwarded an email in February 2012 that included a joke about bestiality and Obama's mother. Cebull apologized to Obama after the contents of that email were published.
The investigation looked at four years of Cebull's personal correspondence sent from his official email account.
Cebull told the 9th Circuit panel that his “public shaming has been a life-altering experience.'' Nominated by former President George W. Bush, he received his commission in 2001 and served as chief judge of the District of Montana from 2008 until 2013.
Named as defendants in the case were the office of 9th Circuit Executive Cathy Catterson and the Committee on Judicial Conduct of the Judicial Conference of the United States.
Ninth Circuit spokesman David Madden said he could not comment on the pending petition.
The plaintiffs attempted in May to directly petition the 9th Circuit. That was rejected by the court's clerk, who said the petition needed to be filed first at the district court level.
Agency accused of violating law on remains, relics
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An independent federal agency is calling for an investigation into allegations that U.S. officials ignored a law requiring them to catalog, preserve and ultimately return human remains and relics to American Indian tribes.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has directed the Interior Department to investigate whether U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials have violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act while managing collections of remains and artifacts amassed during the construction and management of dams and waterways throughout California and parts of Nevada and Oregon.
A whistleblower complained that the bureau in Sacramento erased records within an Interior Department database and altered spreadsheets in an effort to hide mismanagement of collections under the agency's control, resulting in hundreds of remains and artifacts being lost, boxed up for storage or loaned to museums and universities without the ability to track them.
The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it hopes the inquiry will be expanded to cover more agencies and more parts of the West.
“These are relics that do not belong to the American government,'' said Jeff Ruch, the group's executive director. “The point of the law is they belong to the tribes from which they came. If these were your ancestors' remains and they were boxed up someplace where you couldn't get any information about them, you'd be pretty angry.''
A spokesman with the Bureau of Reclamation's Mid-Pacific office could not immediately comment, saying he was unaware of the whistleblower's case and the call for an investigation.
The federal government's handling of Native American remains and artifacts has been criticized for years. Following a critical report by the Government Accountability Office in 2010, the Interior Department asked for more money and at least eight years to bolster compliance with the law.
But progress has been slow and frustrating, and communication with tribes is still lacking, said D. Bambi Kraus, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers. “It's encouraging that this is being investigated,'' she said.
A filing with the Office of Special Counsel shows Patrick Williams, who used to work as a museum specialist in archaeology in the bureau's Mid-Pacific office, raised concerns with his supervisors that the agency was not complying with the law's requirements once it stopped keeping detailed records of remains and relics. He also said the office was not filling out the proper paperwork when loaning out artifacts, essentially making the items untraceable.
The office routinely failed to notify tribes of long-stored and newly uncovered remains and funerary objects, Williams said. Some of the collections date back to the 1970s, when the federal government was building the New Melones dam and reservoir in California.
“They more or less wanted to sweep it under the rug,'' Williams said in an interview. “They were telling me to change things they didn't want to see in the record and not to record information that tribal members might want to see as part of a repatriation request.''
Williams said his supervisors told him creating detailed files of the remains and artifacts to comply with the law was “too complicated and required too much time and effort.'' He said his concerns resulted in hostility and threats of termination.
“I'm not about to break the law for anybody, and they wanted me to go along with it,'' Williams said. “I would rather step out, and that's what I did.''
A combination of budget cuts and the low priority assigned by bureau managers resulted in responsibilities under the law falling by the wayside, Williams said.
While it's unclear how widespread the compliance problem is, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said it wouldn't be surprised if similar things were happening elsewhere given that budget shortfalls and other priorities are challenges found throughout the agency.
“This is a statutory duty they feel they can ignore,'' Ruch said. “The most important part is tribes aren't being consulted, so there's nothing to prevent this from going on for years and years.''
The Office of Special Counsel has given the Interior Department 60 days to investigate the allegations and report back.