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Tired of Corruption, Mont. Tribal Members and the Guardians Fight Back

Montana tribal members fight back against corrupt governments skimming the funds distributed by the federal government.

Tribal self-governance is a process that continues to be a struggle among some of the 566 federally recognized tribes resulting in tens of millions of taxpayer dollars misappropriated according to an independent Associated Press review.

The AP review, through obtained internal tribal audits and documents, has found that tribal governments, schools or housing authorities had 1 in 4 material weaknesses in their federally funded programs creating opportunities for abuses. That figure is drastically higher than the 1 in 20 rate for nontribal programs.

The review points to multiple reasons leading to the misappropriations, including theft or fraud, but the auditors suggested the majority of it was due to mismanagement. This is often a result of unqualified handlers controlling the millions of federal dollars the tribe receives each year.

Sergio Maldonado, a Northern Arapaho member and diversity coordinator at Central Wyoming College in Riverton told the AP that there are four goals for a successful tribal government – “academic preparation, professional experience, a collective consensus for the benefit of the tribe and an ethical set of guidelines.”

However, for the last two years the Montana Guardians Project has been at the forefront of fighting against corrupt tribal governments.

Michael Cotter with the Montana United States Attorney’s Office heads the Guardians along with close cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service.

He says, “As the [Guardians] developed, the U.S. Attorney’s conclusions that a serious public integrity issue existed was validated – repeatedly – by complaints from residents of Indian country who knew that much of the money coming to the reservation community was not getting to the people it was designed to help.”

RELATED: Montana Guardians Project Aims to Deter Indian Country Corruption

In 2013 alone:

--On the Crow Indian Reservation, seven were convicted in a double billing scheme totaling more than $500,000 dollars. And not just money was the cost as ultimately a priceless sacred bison site was dug up under the schemers’ watch as they were in charge of the tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

RELATED: Sacred Bison Honoring Site Destroyed for Coal Underneath

--In north central Montana’s Rocky Boy reservation, construction was halted for a $361 million water pipeline project after five indictments of tribal members allegedly claimed $311,000 diverted from $33 million in stimulus money received via shell companies and money laundering according to the Missoulian.

--Further west on the Blackfeet reservation, a $9.3 million Po’Ka Project designated to help at risk youths through 2005-2011 became defunct after years of mismanagement the Billings Gazette reported. There was allegedly $4.6 million lost over those years via doctored invoices to make it seem as if the program was still efficient among other kickback schemes, according Cotter.

But the Guardians aren’t the only ones demanding accountability. This year 5 of 7 Montana tribes were represented by a loose coalition of tribes against corruption in early October – while the other two tribes expressed interest in joining the Havre Daily News reported.

One of those fighting against local corruption, Byron Farmer, was actually arrested for a July “Blackfeet Against Corruption” Facebook page post lambasting his tribe’s government. According to the Missoulian, 15 officers came to arrest him on a July trip to his home reservation.

RELATED: Blackfeet Man Jailed for Speaking Out, Hits Back Harder

After spending five days in jail, he was apparently vindicated in his Facebook postings as five people were indicted in the alleged Po’Ka Project scheme just a few weeks later in early August.

“Americans may not understand the mysterious inner workings of Indian country, but they sure as hell understand what free speech is.“ Farmer says. “My arrest was the trigger that finally swung around the big national media spotlight to shine right on the Blackfeet Reservation, where it caught tribal leadership speechless, embarrassed, and scurrying.”