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Billings car dealer charges Crow Tribe with misdealing

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BILLINGS, Mont. -- The owner of a Billings car dealership says his firm is owed about $200,000 from the Crow tribal government and individual tribal members, some of whom financed personal vehicles and had private service work done under the auspices of conducting official tribal business.

Stuart Simonsen, owner of High Country Subaru-Hyundai, says the Crow Tribal Council, the tribe's Little Big Horn Casino, and 24 other individuals affiliated with the tribe signed 46 contracts for $837,635 worth of vehicles last year from Wayne Kimmet, the dealership's owner when it was known as Homestead Subaru-Hyundai.

Simonsen, a prominent Billings-area businessman who worked under Kimmet, bought the firm and changed its name late last year.

"Basically, we got used and abused," Simonsen charges. "This is a messed-up situation and it's basically justified fraud. It's huge and it's blatantly wrong."

While some of the vehicles -- such as a 2000 Subaru Outback Ltd. paid for with $32,512 in tribal funds for newly elected Chairman Clifford BirdinGround -- were bought outright, records show other transactions for personal vehicles were partially financed through an unusual "trade-in equity account" that even tribal lawyers and BirdinGround now acknowledge was improper.

Tribal officials, however, blame the dealership for letting the improprieties occur. They say the remaining car contracts are void since "the consideration used to support these contracts was illegal," one tribal document states.

But Simonsen and Kimmet maintain the fault lies with BirdinGround and other top Crow administrators who allegedly authorized approximately $100,000 in tribal capital to be converted to private parties and then didn't stand behind the deals. Records show at least six people who share the BirdinGround surname are included in the list of people the dealership maintains purchased private vehicles with tribal government authorization.

"I think the tribe has basically hidden behind its sovereignty," Simonsen said angrily of payments cutoff last fall. "It's a huge fraud that's basically been justified by their sovereignty."

Dealership records show only three Crow tribal members are still making payments on the block of 46 vehicles purchased from Homestead during the summer of 2000. Several other vehicles have been repossessed by High Country, and credit for other vehicles returned by the tribe continues to be held against the money still owed, Simonsen said.

"We thought it was going to be a good relationship," Kimmet added. "From the dealership's standpoint, we basically went on (BirdinGround's) authority to work on behalf of the tribe. We went through and got paid for some of the transactions, then all of the sudden they stopped paying."

Documents obtained by Indian Country Today show that tribal attorneys Majel Russell and Sam Painter of the Billings-based Elk River Law Office agree that BirdinGround and his wife improperly received $2,900 in so-called "bird-dog" fees from the dealership for referring relatives and others who later bought cars and trucks from the business. In a Dec. 11, 2000, letter to Elk River lawyers, Kimmet said BirdinGround also had meals and gasoline receipts paid for by the dealership as part of a financial courting ritual.

"In addition, the dealership did everything it could to foster a strong relationship with the tribe, including a $2,000 sponsorship of the Crow Fair," Kimmet wrote.

BirdinGround, 66, confirmed that he returned the referral-fee money late last year after questions were raised about the equity account and Homestead tried to collect $152,000 still owed on the sales, as well as $47,000 in unpaid bills from related service work. But BirdinGround contends Homestead offered him the referral money first. Kimmet, however, told tribal lawyers in his letter the chairman "asked for and received a bird-dog fee of $100 for every vehicle purchased from both the Crow Tribe itself and from tribal members he assisted in the purchase of their vehicles."

"After I thought about it, I gave it back through my personal account," said BirdinGround, who contends with his attorneys that the dealership actually owes the Crow Tribe $86,444 for vehicle returns and seizures, as well as alleged "overpayments."

Simonsen says he's had numerous discussions with Elk River attorneys over the transactions and that he's invited tribal leaders to take him to court if they truly think High Country owes them money.

"I've basically said, 'Sue me.' I'm looking forward to it," he says. "The tribe reneged on all this. Everyone was telling us it was OK. We didn't know any better."

However, BirdinGround said the equity account was unilaterally created by Homestead after saleswoman Terri Lyn Braun-Humphrey made repeated trips to the Crow Indian Reservation trying to initiate business with the tribe.

About the same time, BirdinGround says tribal leaders identified approximately a dozen vehicles purchased during former Chairwoman Clara Nomee's administration that were no longer wanted, and that Braun-Humphrey and Kimmet agreed to accept the vehicles as trade-ins for future purchases.

"We thought they'd trade in tribal (government) vehicles for other tribal (government) vehicles," Kimmet said.

But BirdinGround maintains he did not give Homestead authority to create the account with government capital and then use the equity as credit for individuals buying vehicles for private title and use.

"They didn't explain to me what was going on," he said. "I can't use tribal money for that. We never authorized them to set up that account. They say I gave them authority, but I never gave them authority. My opponents keep bringing these things up. I don't owe (the dealership) anything more."

Kimmet and Simonsen clearly see the relationship differently.

"I want to make it perfectly clear that Clifford was well aware of each of these transactions, and we relied on his authority as chairman in following his direction in the sale of these vehicles," Kimmet wrote in his December 2000 letter that demanded immediate payment on all outstanding vehicle and service debt. "He was present in the dealership for the majority of the purchases."

An Aug. 8, 2000, document obtained by Indian Country Today shows BirdinGround's signature on a $61,865 disbursement from the equity account. The document lists 10 individuals who bought vehicles from Homestead.

"I authorize these disbursements and find this balance to be true and correct," the signature line states.

"After lengthy discussions, legal research and a review of pertinent documents, the Crow Tribe questions the legality of the contracts which illegally utilize Crow tribal government funds as vehicle down payments for individual tribal members," says a Dec. 12, 2000, letter to Kimmet from Russell, the tribal attorney.

"The Crow Tribe, as a government, never authorized use of Crow tribal government funds as consideration for private individual vehicle purchase contracts," the letter continues. "Crow tribal government funds are strictly regulated by federal statute and the Crow Tribal Council. Any use of such funds outside these regulations may constitute an illegal use of tribal money potentially prosecutable under (federal law.)"

"What we told them is that they have to deal with the individuals that owe them money," BirdinGround says of the controversy.

"We will go to the FBI and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs" if the payment issue isn't settled soon by the tribe, Simonsen counters. "I guess if they can keep me quiet, they win. But I'm not afraid to talk about it. It would help to have that cash."

Billings Area BIA Director Keith Beartusk says his office is already aware of the dispute. "We intend to meet with the tribe in the near future to discuss these matters. We are concerned always with the use of federal dollars by a tribe" and the agency will try to dig out the details.

Officials with the U.S. Attorney's office in Billings refuse to confirm or deny whether they're looking into the transactions.

Simonsen says some employees at Homestead became concerned when it appeared tribal assets were routinely being transferred to private use through the equity account. Simonsen and Kimmet maintain, however, that all the deals were OK'd by either BirdinGround or other top administration officials, either by phone or in person, before they took place.

Simonsen says he was also surprised when about $800 worth of stereo work done on a vehicle owned by the chairman's daughter was deducted from the government's equity account, allegedly at BirdinGround's request. BirdinGround counters that he tried to pay for the work, but was turned down by Homestead officials.

"They wouldn't accept my money," he said.

Simonsen says some Homestead employees raised their eyebrows when saleswoman Braun-Humphrey suddenly started cutting multiple Crow car deals last summer. Along with a decade's worth of other felony and misdemeanor convictions, Yellowstone County District Court records show she was sentenced to prison in 1997 after writing a series of bad checks on the Big Sky PRIDE American Indian children's fund account in Billings.

Simonsen says he terminated Braun-Humphrey's employment after he took over the dealership. She apparently has since left the area and could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, parties appear to be waiting for the other side to budge or blink.

But not Kimmet, who said, "I guess I'm kind of out of the loop now. It became (Simonsen's) headache, not mine."