- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

HAVRE, Mont. (AP) - The U.S. Interior Department has ruled that the Chippewa Cree Business Committee violated federal whistleblower laws when it terminated Ken Blatt St. Marks as its chairman.

The department determined there was sufficient evidence to indicate St. Marks was removed by the tribal council in March 2013 because he was cooperating with a federal corruption investigation on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, the Havre Daily News (http://bit.ly/1wBEAef) reported.

About a dozen people have been convicted or pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges over the awarding of construction contracts and kickbacks paid to tribal officials.

Former state Rep. Tony Belcourt is serving just over seven years in prison after pleading guilty to theft from an Indian tribal organization, two counts of accepting bribes and one count of income tax fraud. Belcourt also was ordered to pay $667,000 in restitution.

Former tribal chairman John “Chance” Houle faces sentencing in March after pleading guilty to accepting kick-back payments in exchange for the awarding of tribal contracts along with embezzlement, obstruction of justice and tax evasion.

Tribal members re-elected St. Marks in a July 2013 special election. He fought for 18 months in tribal court to have the election declared valid. He was sworn in last month and the committee suspended him again the next day, alleging his construction company had filed exaggerated claims for work done under tribal contracts. Friday’s decision by the Interior Department does not address those allegations.

St. Marks has denied the allegations, and no federal charges have been filed against him.

St. Marks and his attorneys have 15 days to submit a proposed remedy to his firing. The tribe will then have 15 days to respond.

“I’m happy that the federal government has finally seen it my way,” St. Marks said in a statement. “I have a lot of work to do. I think we all have to bury the hatchet and work for the people. Instead of trying to destroy this place, we got to build it back up.”

Derek Hines, the tribe’s attorney from Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia, declined to comment on the decision.

Interior Department documents indicate the tribe received $27.5 million in 2009 and 2010 for the construction of a pipeline to provide sustainable water to residents of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

Shortly after St. Marks was elected in November 2012, he met with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to tell them a construction company run by Belcourt submitted false financial reports, the Interior Department said. An Office of Inspector General audit found nearly $13 million in questioned costs.

In March 2013, Belcourt sent a letter to tribal council members announcing that he was working with federal agencies that were investigating the misuse of federal funds and requested whistleblower protections. Six days later, the business committee voted to suspend St. Marks from his chairman position and then removed him for “neglect of duty and gross mismanagement.”

The Interior Department said the tribe was unable to prove that St. Marks’ removal was due to anything other than his help with the federal investigation.

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Information from: Havre Daily News, http://www.havredailynews.com

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