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Federal court gets involved with Crow Creek voting probe

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FORT THOMPSON, S.D. - After a turn-around by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, charges of voter fraud from the 2002 federal election will be reinstated against the central figure in the widely publicized, and some say grossly overblown, Indian voting scandal.

Charges were temporarily dropped against Rebecca Red Earth-Villeda, who was accused of forging signatures on voter registration cards and absentee ballot applications while working under contract for the Democratic Party.

The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and tribal court judge tried to turn away state officials attempting to serve subpoenas on alleged victims of voter fraud in the 2002 election.

But the tribal council reversed itself Feb. 18 after admitting confusion over the entire incident and allowed the subpoenas to be served.

In the meantime, South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long temporarily dropped the charges against Red Earth-Villeda because time had run out to arrange for a preliminary hearing.

Terry Pechota, attorney for the tribe, told the Associated Press that initially the council resisted, but is now in full compliance.

Red Earth-Villeda, also known as Maka Duta, was charged on Jan. 2 with filing false voting records in the names of 19 individuals who live on the Crow Creek Reservation. Red Earth-Villeda is from the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and was turning in voter registration cards to the Democratic Party in exchange for payment.

U.S. Federal District Judge Charles Kornmann denied the state's request for a preliminary injunction, but in doing so he told the tribe that it wrongly put itself into a position for court action.

In order to prosecute the case, the alleged victims, whose names appeared on the registration cards and absentee ballot applications, need to testify in court.

"We're trying to get Becky prosecuted. We got the charges started in Sioux Falls, but have to have a preliminary hearing within 45 days of the charges and that came up on Friday, Feb 14," Long said.

The entire process could be taken from the pages of a Laurel and Hardy movie replete with misunderstandings and over-reactions.

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The Crow Creek Tribal Council issued a memorandum to the tribal judge dated Jan. 28 stating that they were in total and full agreement not to allow state subpoenas on the reservation. The memo was signed by six members of the council. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe does not have separation of powers.

"That's the judge's marching orders and he's marching," Long said.

Tribal judge Paul Mueller could not be reached for comment. Tribal Council members did not return phone calls or were not available.

Long did speak with Mueller, but said the two of them agreed to disagree on the matter.

What started out as a routine matter with subpoenas issued to potential witnesses, whose names allegedly appeared fraudulently on the absentee ballot applications and registration cards, nearly turned into a federal case.

The Sheriff of Buffalo County was to serve the subpoenas, but then Sheriff Frank Gorneau asked the tribal council and the tribal judge for permission to issue the subpoenas, Long said.

"In the meantime he has the subpoenas and then resigns. I then sent a Department of Criminal Investigation officer to serve the subpoenas and he gets word that the tribal judge wants to talk to him. He told the judge to sort it out and he was ordered off the reservation without serving the subpoenas," Long said.

"We had no other alternative to seek relief than to file in federal court," he said.

Red Earth-Villeda maintains her innocence in the matter, which turned into a large brouhaha in the state and in some national media. Elements of the Republican Party claimed the re-election of U. S. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, was obtained by voter fraud. Two people were charged with falsifying registration cards or absentee ballot applications, but no one has been charged with actual tampering with the ballots.

Because of the possibility of not holding a hearing before the 45-day limit, the state asked a state judge to extend the time limit, but the motion was denied because of lack of jurisdiction, the judge stated. The subpoenas were issued by a grand jury, and the judge could not rule on the matter.

Most of the voter fraud accusations just before the November elections were against people attempting to register American Indian voters. The Democratic Party conducted an all-out effort in Indian country and registered thousands of new voters. Sen. Tim Johnson defeated challenger John Thune, the Republican candidate handpicked by President George W. Bush, by a margin of only 528 votes.

Former Attorney General, Mark Barnett and former Secretary of State Joyce Hazeltine said there was no indication of voter fraud other than the two people charged.