- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 2, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A former state legislator pleaded guilty Wednesday to theft, bribery and tax-evasion charges for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and bribes from consultants and contractors who were awarded federal money for projects on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

Tony Belcourt appeared in U.S. District Court in Great Falls after reaching plea deals with federal prosecutors in four of six indictments.

Prosecutors agreed to drop dozens of other charges and to recommend that Belcourt’s sentences run concurrently. He faces a maximum of three to 10 years in prison on each of the four charges he pleaded guilty to, and two related cases are pending.

Sentencing has been set for Aug. 14.

Belcourt, who was voted out of his state House seat in 2012, was the chief executive officer and contracting officer for the Chippewa Cree Construction Corp. The tribal company oversees the federal money being used to build a new drinking-water pipeline to the reservation, and Belcourt awarded the contracts.

In 2010, Belcourt awarded a total of $660,000 in federal stimulus aid to a consulting company to ship pipe for the project. The consulting company was created by the sister and father of Belcourt’s business partner, Dr. James Eastlick Jr., who was a psychologist at the reservation’s health clinic.

The consulting company overbilled the cost of shipping the pipe, and it sent $163,000 of that money back to Belcourt and his wife, prosecutors said. The Belcourts used the money to buy a house in Box Elder and to start a company called MT Waterworks, which was later awarded a federal contract for the pipeline project.

Belcourt pleaded guilty to theft from an Indian tribal government receiving federal grant funds in that case Wednesday.

The other defendants - Eastlick, his father, sister, her husband and Belcourt’s wife, Hailey - have pleaded not guilty and a trial date has been set for May 12.

Another case Belcourt pleaded guilty to Wednesday also involved a contractor for the water pipeline project, Hunter Burns Construction.

The company was created in 2009 and is co-owned by businessman Hunter Burns and Eastlick.

In 2009, Belcourt approved a $94,000 payment to the company. The next week, the construction company cut Hailey Belcourt a $35,000 check, $20,000 of which she used to pay down debt on $700,000 in loans the Belcourts had taken out for their cattle ranch, prosecutors said.

The Belcourts were past due on those loans, and the bank had begun foreclosure proceedings, prosecutors said.

Later in 2009, Belcourt sold 190 head of cattle from the ranch and channeled the $107,000 from the sale to his wife’s father, prosecutors said. The bank found out about the sale of secured property from the ranch and demanded payment that October.

In November, Belcourt approved a $148,000 payment to Hunter Burns Construction, and the company two days later issued Hailey Belcourt a $100,000 loan, prosecutors said.

She used that money to repay the money from the sale of the cattle, prosecutors said. The loan from the company was never repaid.

The Belcourts did not list any of the $135,000 they received from Hunter Burns Construction as income, and they owe more than $37,000 in taxes on it, prosecutors said.

Belcourt pleaded guilty in that case to a charge of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and to filing a false tax return in a related indictment unsealed Wednesday.

Hunter Burns and the construction company pleaded guilty Wednesday to false claims conspiracy. Sentencing has been set for July 10.

Hailey Belcourt was scheduled to change her not guilty plea on Thursday, while Eastlick has a change-of-plea hearing on May 1.

Finally, Belcourt pleaded guilty to a bribery charge in a separate case involving alleged kickbacks from a contractor in 2011.

Belcourt awarded federal contracts to several companies owned by former Havre school board member Shad Huston in 2011.

Prosecutors allege Huston or his companies gave Hailey Belcourt a $7,500 loan and wired another $10,000 to the Belcourts’ overdrawn bank account. Huston later gave Tony Belcourt $300,000 after Belcourt became overdrawn by $250,000 in cattle purchases, prosecutors said.

Huston has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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