Story by Denver Pratt, photos by Rebekah Welch
Lately, it seems money isn’t flowing in as freely as it used to in Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. It’s been increasingly hard for Javon Wing to secure federal grant money for the Chippewa Cree tribe.
Wing, who’s worked as the tribal grant writer for five years, is aware of past victories on Rocky Boy’s, where the grant office was awarded funds for project after project. In one case, the tribe was awarded millions of federal dollars to improve its water system and other programs. It was a great economic success story for Montana’s Indian Country.
Then the news broke: Misspent money. Hidden funds. Systemic corruption. It spread to almost every tribal department, eventually leading to embezzlement settlements for 25 high-ranking tribal officials.
Wing has been present for all of it. She’s watched as the tribe slid into further financial decay. Only now does the Chippewa Cree tribe have the ability to attempt to reverse the effects of the past four years, but the path forward isn’t so clear.
As a result of the chaos that ensued, the federal government launched a massive investigation into millions of misspent dollars and laundered in intricate embezzlement schemes, which targeted both tribal and federal funds. The Chippewa Cree tribe is in a precarious position as it moves forward, staving off hefty federal sanctions and designations. Meanwhile, at least one of the key players who initially incited the investigation also maneuvers to pick up his life, both personally and politically, following the era that nearly derailed it.
Like many Native American reservations, the Chippewa Cree tribe on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in north-central Montana heavily relies on mostly federal grants to fund its many projects, this includes cell phone towers, improving housing developments and education, and providing access to clean water. Wing, who typically applies for two to three grants each month, said due to decreased funding at a federal level, which trickles down to the tribes, and tighter restrictions placed on grants make it harder for the tribes to receive grants and comply with regulations. This also makes the grants more competitive, she said.
But for Rocky Boy’s, there’s more at play than just federal budget cuts and tighter stipulations.
The actions of the past four years have endangered the Chippewa Cree tribe’s financial wellbeing, shifting the future stability of the tribe. Due to rampant corruption in almost every tribal entity, the tribe’s grant status is now uncertain.
“We, the United States government, have a unique relationship with tribal nations, and it’s a trust relationship,” said U.S. Attorney for the State of Montana Mike Cotter. “The individuals who are tribal leaders have a trust relationship to their people, and they broke that trust. The money that flows into the reservation is to be used for the reservation and the people on the reservation, and it was not. I believe over time they can rehabilitate themselves, the tribes can … to be able to be recipients of grants and be recipients of additional funds, but it does take time.”
If that relationship between the tribe and the federal government is damaged, the grant status of the tribe can change, said Executive U.S. Attorney for the State of Montana Carl Rostad. At this point, the Chippewa Cree tribe has not been deemed a “high-risk” for the federal government to lend to, but portions of the tribe are being treated as such, Rostad said. This move could potentially jeopardize the future financial stability of the tribe.
Foundations and lending agencies tend to use a simple meter to gauge the financial “health” of an organization such as a tribe. A “low-risk” rating means the organization is likely to repay its debt. “High-risk” means it has a history of not repaying its debt. Federal grant programs use the same scale. An organization’s standing can be severely affected by proven misuse of grant money.
A grant status can be relegated to a specific grant, a specific department or the tribe as a whole. So far, the Chippewa Cree tribe is still deemed low-risk, meaning it will receive grant money upfront to pay for the approved programs and projects. However, if lenders were to deem the tribe as high-risk, future funds would be granted on a cost-reimbursement basis requiring the tribe to pay all program and project costs upfront. Grant funds would be reimbursed only after completion, Rostad said. This could be financially crippling, since grant programs tend to cost millions of dollars.
However, the federal government has staved off such a drastic move, despite such a rampant trend of financial misdeeds on Rocky Boy’s.
“Many of the times, the problems in the grantee/grantor relationship are not criminal or corrupt, they’re just mismanaged,” Rostad said.
Wing said the tribe needs grants and would be unable to foot the bill for millions of dollars needed for various projects. However, she said she has recently focused her efforts on grants that would help make the tribe more self-sustaining. While the past few years have been hard, the tribe is trying to take steps in the right direction, she said.
In 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the State of Montana created the Guardians Project. This federal program is designed to bring together many federal agencies, including the Inspectors General, the U.S. Attorney’s office, the F.B.I. and others, in order to track mismanaged federal funds on tribal lands in Montana. It has grown into a nationwide project. Because the money tracked is federal money allocated to Native American tribes, the U.S. Attorney’s office has jurisdiction over investigations, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Since the project’s inception, there have been 44 closed cases in Montana with over half coming from Rocky Boy’s alone. With the help of Ken St. Marks, tribal chairman, the Guardians Project discovered an interconnected web of cash kickbacks and embezzlements among many prominent members of the tribe and within many of the tribe’s major programs, including the Business Committee, the Chippewa Cree Rodeo Association, the Chippewa Cree Construction Corporation, Stone Child College, Rocky Boy Health Board Clinic and Plain Green Loans.
Some of the tribal officials targeted by the Guardians Project included a former Montana state representative and CEO of the Chippewa Cree Construction Corporation, a former tribal chairman and president of the Rodeo Association, another former tribal chairman, a psychologist for the Rocky Boy Health Clinic and the CEO and chief operation officer of Plain Green Loans. The work of the Guardians Project discovered that many of them were wiring funds to one another or they transferred the embezzled money into joint accounts. Many were convicted of more than one felony, and some were charged with misdemeanors as well. All of them accepted plea deals. Their sentences ranged from 90 months in prison to 41 months incarceration. Their restitution ranged from just under $500,000 to nearly $1.5 million.
“I think that the program has been immensely successful in exposing the degree and pervasiveness of the corruption in some tribal governments,” Rostad said. “The advantage to the Guardians Project is that we also believe there could be some remedial consequences that affect how grants are given, how grants are monitored, the controls put on grants, and various other internal structural changes that may help to ensure when an Indian tribe gets a grant that it gets to the people that it was meant to help.”
For the Chippewa Cree, this holds true. Rocky Boy’s was the last of Montana’s seven reservations to be created by the federal government in 1916, and is the smallest, with just over 120,000 acres. There are roughly 6,177 enrolled members of the Chippewa Cree tribe, with more than half living on the reservation.
On one end of the reservation is Gramma’s Market, the only local grocery store, the elementary and high schools and the agency, it’s a small wooden building that used to be white, but has since turned rose-colored from red trim that’s bled over the years. On the other end is the construction company, the justice center and Stone Child College, all of which are newer buildings, their shiny metal exteriors out of place in the open space.
Many of the roads connecting the two ends are unpaved and unnamed, but people who live there know their way around. Tucked in between a few of the hills are some of the larger, well-kept homes, some of which belonged to members of the tribe who were embezzling and used the money to make home improvements.
The rural area, coupled with the lacking infrastructure, makes the tribe’s current grant situation unique. Although the Chippewa Cree’s grant status hasn’t officially changed, their rapport with the government isn’t great. Wing said this has made the tribe want to create stronger partnerships and more open lines of communication among the agencies. If the tribe were to be put on a cost-reimbursement basis it would have a huge impact.
“Right now, we depend a lot on federal grants and so I guess to take a hard hit like that, yeah it would be difficult. It’d be difficult to find the money for the different projects that we need,” she said.
In the future, Wing would like to see the federal government provide more technical assistance and guidance from the federal government on tribal grants. She said if they’re dealing with a high-risk grant, they would like to be able to speak to the lending agencies about the exact steps needed to be taken off high-risk status and to smooth out the process. In order for the tribe to be removed from a high-risk status, they have to be compliant in other grants over a period of time, spending the money on what the grant was designated for. Eventually the tribe can petition the agency with which they are high-risk to ask for a change in their designation, Rostad said.
If he could go back, he wouldn’t do it again. Instead, Ken St. Marks, Chippewa Cree tribal chairman, would let his tribe continue to fall into financial ruin. Stepping forward to try to fix the broken system cost him four years of his life. Four years he spent in courtrooms trying to clear his name and contest accusations of fraud, sexual assault, embezzlement and more. St. Marks went from owning a construction company to being one of the most controversial political figures on the reservation.
In 2012, St. Marks catalyzed the large-scale federal investigation, led by the Guardians Project, into the mismanagement of tribal funds on Rocky Boy’s. He owned and operated a construction company, which was contracted in 2010 to work with the Chippewa Cree Construction Company. Over the two-year contract, St. Marks found that not all the money made was accounted for. He reported his findings to the federal government, disclosing that the Business Committee, or tribal government, was mismanaging tribal funds, according to federal court records.
In December, a month after St. Marks was elected chairman of the Business Committee, he wrote a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation claiming the chairman’s office would continue to investigate where federal grant money had gone, conflicts of interest and ethical violations of tribal entities and their members, according to federal court records. This set off a chain of events that ballooned into something greater than what most tribal members had anticipated.
As St. Marks investigated further, he came to realize that Business Committee members, prominent business owners and employees of the tribe were embezzling the money, spending it on private jets to Las Vegas, lavish parties, new vehicles and extravagant homes. A December 2013 audit of tribal funds found that almost $13 million dollars, more than a third of which was federeal money, was mismanaged by the Business Committee. Corruption had infested every entity on Rocky Boy’s.
The next four years of St. Marks’ life were turbulent. According to court records, St. Marks has been threatened repeatedly, both politically and personally.
He was removed from office as chairman three separate times. The first time was the result of a unanimous vote by the eight other tribal council members at a secret meeting. The council also took out a restraining order, barring him from his office. The council said St. Marks would cause irreparable harm to the tribe, according to
A week later, St. Marks was arrested and charged with trespassing while trying to attend a public meeting at the tribal office.
Still, three days later, he announced his intent to run in a special election for chairman, essentially campaigning to fill his renounced seat.
The Election Board cleared his candidacy but revoked it three days later. It was later reinstated after a legal battle.
In July, when the candidates for chairman appeared online, St. Marks’ picture was digitally altered to make him look like a demon, and his qualifications for office weren’t listed, according to federal court records. On July 30, St. Marks won the special election by 140 votes and was re-elected
It was during the short time after his first suspension that another Business Committee member approached all the members of the council proposing they kill St. Marks and burn down his house, according to federal court records. St. Marks has only served about one year of his four year term in office as chairman. And if he could go back, he wouldn’t do it again. He wouldn’t speak up.
“I kind of hate to talk about it because it gives our reservation a black eye,” he said. “If I knew back then what I know today, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I guess we would still be corrupt.”
But things weren’t difficult only for St. Marks. Other council and tribal members said an oppressive tension hung in the air.
Dustin Whitford, a Business Committee member since 2012, said he would come to work each day not knowing who was being kicked off or indicted. One after another, council members, directors, CEOs and prominent tribal members were sentenced for corruption. Whitford said while the corruption was unfortunate, it was necessary for the tribe to start following its own rules and policies, and its exposure allowed the tribe the chance to move forward.
“It’s been a hard test of will, of patience. It was a test on mental strengths, spiritual strengths, and everything that we went through as a tribe, even though it was painful, embarrassing, I believe it was necessary. We had to experience that to move forward,” Whitford said. “I think it was our rock bottom, where there was no other way but up.”
As the number of indictments and prison sentences grew, the local and regional papers filled their pages with the latest name and dollar amount embezzled. And now that the indictments have slowed, the question of what’s left and how to move forward for those still on Rocky Boy’s remains. The fallout can be seen in the tension between tribal members’ weariness of one another and their government, mixed with their desire to move forward.
“It’s a hard thing. Some of these people that went to jail were my friends, but at the same time, just because they were councilmen, that doesn’t give them the right to do what they did. And I believe that wrong is wrong and right is right,” St. Marks said.
For some, the shakeup has been a blessing. Because of the shift in power on the council caused by the Guardians Project’s involvement, Chase Watson now has a job at Gramma’s Market as the butcher. The job allows him to save money to return to college to continue his studies. Before, Watson, 22, couldn’t get a job on the reservation due to political unfairness, he said. Watson said when he approached the council in need of help, either to fix his house or pay bills, he wouldn’t receive any money, but people related to council members would. Watson said he’s grateful St. Marks stepped forward because it’s given more tribal members opportunities like his. He believes the ends justified the means.
“We can hope for a better future now that that’s all out in the open,” Watson said.
For St. Marks, the clean slate requires a future commitment to ensure the tribe proceeds in the right direction. The past four years may have shook him, but his desire to leave things in a better condition keeps him coming back. This November, St. Marks will run in the election for chairman again. He hopes to eventually get the tribe to a point where he can walk away knowing the rules are set in stone and followed, and that there’s equal treatment among tribal members. But until then, he’ll stick it out.
“I really love our reservation. In the summer and spring of the year, it’s the Garden of Eden,” St. Marks said. “It’s the most beautiful reservation you’ll ever see, and it’s home. It’s what our people know as home.”
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