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Crow abandon power plant project; face judgement

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BILLINGS, Mont. ? The Crow Tribe has apparently abandoned a power plant project after spending some $700,000 in federal funds to develop it and is facing a breach-of-contract judgement for the tribal member who pushed the idea for years.

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Susan Watters has ordered the tribe to pay Stephen Bradley $114,000 for breaching his contract for work with the Crow Energy Corp., established to develop a coal-fired plant on the Crow Indian Reservation east of Hardin. Bradley, now a Billings City Council member, advocated the idea from the late 1980s and managed a federal grant for a feasibility study under the previous Crow administration.

The tribe, however, is contesting the Feb. 15 judgment, and has questioned both the contract's validity and the state court's jurisdiction over the matter. Attorneys with the Billings-based Elk River Law Office argued the tribe has sovereign immunity from being sued in the case and said Bradley was "subject to termination at will."

"They try to use that sovereign immunity to get out of a lot of things, and it's just not right," countered Bradley, a Crow tribal member. He added that the tribe's other contentions are "ridiculous."

The civil lawsuit was filed nearly two years ago after Bradley was removed from his energy corporation job by the incoming Clifford Birdinground administration. The contract specified that any disputes arising from the document be settled in a state venue, and not in Crow Tribal Court.

"That's because tribal court is kangaroo court," Bradley said. "It's laughable."

Bradley had worked for the Crow Energy Corp. since late 1994 under former Tribal Chairwoman Clara Nomee. Billings-based attorney Tom Towe, who represents Bradley, maintained the tribe could not dismiss his client without cause.

Bradley served as board secretary, ad-hoc director, and consulting contractor for the organization, established by tribal leaders in 1993. The corporation received a $300,000 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant in 1994 to conduct a feasibility study for the 260-megawatt operation, as well as to find potential partners and customers. The Crow Tribe matched the grant with another $300,000.

Records showed Bradley was hired by Nomee to manage both the DOE grant and the tribal match. The initial funding also led Congress to earmark another $500,000 non-matching federal grant for the plant proposal in 1995.

According to Chris Powers, a spokesman for the agency's regional office in Denver, the $500,000 allocation, also overseen by Bradley and Crow Energy Corp. associates John Hill and Darrell Pretty Weasel, "was basically to continue on with this same sort of project."

In addition to shoring up feasibility of the proposed plant, Powers said the second grant was designed to pay for site planning work, air dispersion modeling for emissions and initial work toward completing an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The plant was being developed under a preliminary agreement with North Carolina-based Cogentrix Energy Inc. It was to be fueled with coal from the reservation's Sarpy Creek Mine, run by Westmoreland Coal Co. Bradley shepherded the project from an idea in the late 1980s to its near-inception. He said he was trying to help the tribe get ahead of the utility deregulation curve so it would be poised to supply power to hungry new markets. The project, which has now apparently been scrapped, would have provided employment for tribal members and given the tribe a steady source of non-federal revenue.

"It wasn't rocket science," he said. "It was a matter of taking a natural resource ? coal ? and producing a commodity ? electricity. The idea was to create jobs and economic development on the reservation. It's a logical fit for the resource."

One of the main advantages for the Crow Tribe in owning a power plant is that the plant could be run more cheaply than an off-reservation facility, Bradley said. The advantage came because the Westmoreland coal was relatively inexpensive, close and plentiful, factors that would have kept transportation and royalty costs down. The plant was also to be built on tribally owned land, which is not taxable by the state.

Bradley said that under the initial agreement, Cogentrix was to have 20 percent control of the project and would operate the plant for the first 15 years. The tribe then "could either keep them in or buy them out," he explained. He added that the power plant, which needed about 3,000 gallons of water a day for cooling, was also tied to a now-aborted compact with the state over Crow Reservation water.

But Bradley said he was told on Aug. 9, 2000 that his contract from Nomee would no longer be honored, and he, Hill, and Pretty Weasel were suddenly out of a job.

"I told Clara Nomee that if we don't build this project, the white man will," Bradley said. "I look at it in a strictly business aspect, but the tribe looked at it an entirely different way. I'm a half-breed, and they don't like that. These guys are screwed up."

Powers, the energy department spokesman, says the agency had no problems with Bradley or the tribal corporation's work under the first $300,000 grant.

"He fulfilled his requirements to us," Powers said. "He was required to submit quarterly reports, and he did so. We've had no performance problems from him or really any one performing the work after him."

However, Powers said that not all the tasks under the second grant were completed after "the project was redirected by the new tribal council," and Bradley and his co-workers were removed from the corporation's payroll.

"We are still waiting on a final report on that project," said Powers, who added that the last $100,000 of the congressional appropriation will not be given to the tribe until the document is completed.

Crow spokesman Channis Whiteman said that to his knowledge, the Crow Energy Corp. has been disbanded. Whiteman did not, however, immediately respond to a list of other questions about the project, including whether someone else is working on the DOE report.

Cogentrix spokesman Jeff Freeman confirmed that while his company had an earlier "relationship" with the Crow Tribe to "investigate project possibilities," the deal is off.

"We have subsequently abandoned the efforts and nothing is underway currently and nothing has been for about three years," Freeman explained.

Bradley was appointed to the Billings City Council in early 1999 to fill a vacancy. He was elected to a four-year term in November 1999. After he filed his lawsuit, court records show the tribe tried to say his contract didn't exist, even though he had been paid for the corporation's work for more than six years.

Watters ruled against the tribal arguments, and records show the tribe or its attorneys did not attend a hearing over a pending summary judgment. Subsequently, Watters granted the award to Bradley, who also serves on Montana Gov. Judy Martz's electrical transition advisory council.

In a March 11 motion, however, Elk River attorney Steven Bolstad asked that the judgment be altered or amended, in part because the firm was not updated on the case after it received expanded legal responsibilities from the tribe last year. Among other arguments, Bolstad said Watters' ruling violates the authority of the tribe to make and follow its own laws. A hearing on the tribal motion is pending.

"We could have dovetailed this like a jigsaw puzzle with other economic development," Bradley said of the power project. "But it didn't work out that way. We had it all laid out. It was all ready to go. We would have been slipping the switch on right now."