HELENA, MONT. (AP) - Three former Blackfeet tribal leaders pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges they held illegal big-game hunts for country musicians participating in an outdoors television show on the northwestern Montana reservation.
Jay St. Goddard, Jay Wells and Gayle Skunkcap Jr. admitted to holding four hunts between 2010 and 2011 without obtaining the limited and expensive hunting licenses for non-tribal members to shoot elk, moose, deer and a black bear. The three men also admitted to using tribal funds and personnel to outfit and guide the musicians, television show hosts and a fly fishing expert.
The men are not accused of personally profiting from the hunts. Rather, they exchanged them for free concerts by country artists that included Josh Thompson, Justin Moore and Mark Cooke, and for exposure on a satellite television show called "Sovereign Sportsman" they estimated was worth $150,000.
Federal prosecutors say the tribal leaders' actions amounted to an illegal sale of the tribe's wildlife. The men's attorneys say they were only trying to raise the poverty-stricken reservation's profile and economy but admit they did not obtain the proper licenses.
"Did they violate the law? Yes. Are they morally wrong? No," Thane Johnson, St. Goddard's attorney, said after the hearing.
Thompson's 2010 debut album is titled "Way Out Here." Moore's "Outlaws Like Me" was a top 10 country album in 2011. Cooke's single "Any Way The Wind Blows" cracked the top 60 in Billboard's country charts.
Country star John Michael Montgomery also performed a free concert on the reservation, but a scheduling conflict prevented him from returning for a hunt, prosecutors said.
"Sovereign Sportsman" co-owner Eric Richey approached the tribe about the hunts in 2010 after shopping the idea to other reservations to promote the show available on DirecTV and Dish Network, according to prosecutors.
Thompson shot a bull elk in an October 2010 hunt with a film crew in tow. The video of that hunt is still on the show's website.
Richey later shot a black bear, and co-host Forrest Parker shot a moose. Curtis Flemming, host of a fly-fishing TV show, shot a mule deer during that hunt.
In 2011, Moore shot a bull elk during a hunt and Cooke shot a moose.
None of the artists or others participating in the "Sovereign Sportsmen" hunts are accused of a crime.
There are only between five and 10 hunting licenses for each big-game species available to non-tribal members each year, with each license costing between $1,500 and $12,000 depending on the animal.
St. Goddard and Wells are former members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the tribe's governing body, while Skunkcap was the tribe's Fish and Game director. The three men reached agreements with federal prosecutors that called for them to plead guilty to the illegal sale of wildlife and theft from a tribal government receiving federal funding.
The U.S. attorney's office would drop four other charges under the plea deals.
The sale of illegal wildlife charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while the theft charge carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney said prosecutors also are likely to ask for restitution to the tribe of up to $70,000.
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon accepted the guilty pleas but said he wasn't prepared to accept the plea agreements yet. If he decides to reject them, the men can withdraw their guilty pleas, he said.
The judge's reluctance appeared to be related, in part, to a condition of the plea deals that says the men could appeal an earlier ruling by Haddon that bars them from calling tribal elders to testify that tribal customs carry the same weight as written ordinances under tribal law.
The three former tribal leaders had argued it is customary for a council member to grant a dignitary a hunt on the reservation.
Federal prosecutors responded by saying only the judge, not jurors, can decide questions of law, such as whether customs have equal footing as written tribal laws. Haddon agreed and ruled the witnesses would not be allowed to testify at trial.
Without that defense, there were few options but for the men's attorneys to cut a plea deal, Johnson said.
The judge said he would take the plea agreement under advisement but did not say when he would make a ruling.
He released the men until sentencing on June 24.