Former Blackfeet chairman sentenced for Head Start fraud

The Associated Press

A plea for Willie Sharp to be spared prison time because of the coronavirus pandemic was denied

Matthew Brown

Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A former Blackfeet Nation chairman who defrauded a tribal Head Start early education program through an overtime pay scheme was sentenced Monday to 10 months in prison and his plea to be spared prison time because of the coronavirus was denied.

Willie Sharp's attorney had argued the Bureau of Prisons was unprepared for the unfolding pandemic, saying the 66-year-old defendant's age and health problems put him at high risk of complications if he becomes ill with the virus.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris rejected Willie Sharp's request but issued a more lenient sentence than what was recommended by federal prosecutors.

Federal prosecutors had recommended about two years in prison after Sharp, who is from the town of Browning, admitted to his role in stealing more than $230,000 from the northwestern Montana tribe's Head Start early education program.

Head Start works to break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool to children from low-income families. 

Prosecutor have said Sharp and his co-defendants embarked on the scheme for employees to inflate overtime payments less than two weeks after their program serving poor Native American kids was informed of a of a $160,000 budget cut by federal officials.

The theft "hurt the children enrolled in Head Start by prohibiting the purchase of books, barring the ability to obtain teaching materials and cutting food nutrition programs for those who need it most" U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme said in a statement.

A charge of theft from a tribal government receiving federal funding was dismissed under the terms of a plea deal.

Defense attorney Andrew Huff said Sharp could not appeal under the terms of the plea deal. He declined further comment. 

Sharp pleaded guilty to wire fraud last year after he authorized false overtime claims on more than 5,800 hours, resulting in $174,000 in payments including to his wife, Denise Sharp, the program's personnel manager. The scheme took place over a 15-month period starting in 2013, prosecutors said. 

Denise Sharp and four others were convicted and sentenced to eight or nine months in prison.

Morris ordered Sharp and the other defendants to pay $174,000 in restitution.

After the fraud was uncovered, the Blackfeet Tribe did an internal review and agreed it could not justify the overtime claims. 

It repaid the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services $250,620.29 for disallowed costs and other expenses, Alme's office said.

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