- Associated Press - Friday, August 15, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - A federal judge sentenced a former state legislator to 7 1/2 years in prison on theft, bribery and tax-evasion charges for embezzling federal money meant for construction projects on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris also ordered Tony Belcourt to pay $667,000 in restitution and sentenced his wife, Hailey Belcourt, to 2 months in prison for her role in the scheme, the Great Falls Tribune reported (http://gftrib.com/1rdeWv4).

Belcourt was accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars while he was the chief executive officer of the Chippewa Cree Construction Corp., which oversees the federal money being used to build a new drinking-water pipeline to the reservation and other projects.

Prosecutors said Belcourt took bribes and kickbacks from consultants and contractors who were awarded contracts from 2009 to 2011, including federal stimulus aid.

“Everyone in our country deserves to be governed by people of integrity,” Morris said at the sentencing hearing. “Mr. Belcourt occupied a position of trust within his community.”

Belcourt told the judge that he has tried to be a positive influence in Indian Country.

“My life has been a struggle between two worlds and how to make those two worlds talk - and now I’m going to prison for that,” he said.

Belcourt was charged with dozens of crimes in multiple indictments, but an agreement with prosecutors made in April had Belcourt plead guilty to theft from an Indian tribal government receiving federal funding, accepting a bribe and federal income tax fraud.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad had recommended a sentence of 10 years in prison and $802,183 in restitution. Belcourt betrayed the trust of the tribe and the U.S. government to line his own pockets, Rostad said.

“Tony Belcourt was a player; a ‘go-to’ guy who spread around federal money guided by what was in it for him and his cronies rather than what was in the best interest of the Tribe,” Rostad wrote in his pre-sentence report to the judge.

Belcourt’s attorneys had argued that Belcourt should be sentenced to six months, followed by a year of home confinement.

Belcourt represented Box Elder as a Democrat in the Montana Legislature from 2008 to 2012. He was a member of the governing Chippewa Cree Tribal Business Committee from 2002 to 2004 and head of the Chippewa Cree Construction Corp. from 2005 to 2013.

In 2010, Belcourt awarded a total of $660,000 in federal stimulus aid to a consulting company to ship pipe for the water line 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.

In 2009, Belcourt approved a $94,000 payment to Hunter Burns Construction, which was co-owned by Hunter Burns and Eastlick. The next week, the construction company cut Hailey Belcourt a $35,000 check, $20,000 of which she used to pay down debt on the Belcourts’ cattle ranch, prosecutors said.

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