Citizens of the Choctaw Nation are watching the trial of the former executive director of the tribe’s construction administration, who is accused of thief, conspiracy, tax fraud and money laundering. Jason Brett Merida faces federal charges in a case involving members of the tribal administration, the owners and managers of local companies that were contracted for the fabrication of the Choctaw casinos in Durant and Pocola, Oklahoma, and an estimated $70 million dollars in gifts and cash.
Merida, who was in charge of overseeing the construction of the casinos, is accused of creating false invoices for materials that were never purchased and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts and bribes from these contractors in exchange for bidding preference and allowing overcharges to the tribe millions for dollars. In exchange he allegedly received gifts and money from the companies, including exotic hunting and golf trips, plastic surgery for his wife, chartered private planes, a collection of over 50 firearms, tuition and mortgage payments, over $160,000 in gifts from Tiffany & Co., over $250,000 in gifts from Saks Fifth Avenue, over $855,000 in Louis Vuitton accessories, and an SUV. Testimony in the prosecution’s case alleges that corruption was a normal part of doing business with the tribe.
Six people in this case have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft or bribery in exchange for reduced sentences; the Choctaw Nation’s Project manager, Allen Mark Franklin, James Winfield Stewart of Scott Rice, an office furniture company, Mark Eshenroder and Cordell Alan Bugg of Flintco construction, and Lauri Ann and Brent Alan Parsons, a married couple who own Builders Steel. Stewart and Brent Parsons also pleaded guilty to money laundering.
Neither Gary Batton, who has been the Chief of the Choctaw Nation for seven months, nor Greg Pyle, who was Chief for the 17 years preceding Batton, have been charged with any crimes, nor were either called to the witness stand by the prosecution, but there is still a possibility that they will be called by the defense to testify this week.
In an e-mail that has been entered into the court record, originally sent to two of the U.S. Attorneys prosecuting this case, a lawyer representing Batton and Pyle, Michael Burrage, states that Batton “received certain gifts from Builder Square. Gary thought the value of these gifts was $27,500.” Burrage goes on to state that Batton made out checks totaling $27,500 to Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Children’s Hospital Foundation.
Burrage’s e-mail continues “Chef Pyle also received either ‘in kind’ or ‘in cash’ donations to his campaign fund from Builders Steel and Flintco…” and states that Pyle has sent checks to charities, including The Make a Wish Foundation and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in the same amount as these contribution, for a grand total of $234,825.
The trial, which is taking place in Muskogee, Oklahoma, is expected to continue for the rest of the week.