Trial begins in Blackfeet embezzlement case

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GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - A trial is underway in Great Falls in the case of a consultant charged with defrauding a former Blackfeet youth mental health program that received $9.3 million in federal funding.

U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad told jurors Tuesday that prosecutors would present a “litany of evidence about fraud, waste and abuse” in the program.

Prosecutors allege $475,000 in Po’Ka Project money went to a business owned by retired Oklahoma State University professor Gary Conti, who served as its monitoring consultant. Conti is charged with kicking back more than $230,000 of that money to accounts controlled by project leaders Francis Onstad and Delyle “Shanny” Augare between 2008 and 2011, the Great Falls Tribune (http://gftrib.com/NTXTvG ) reports.

Defense attorney Josh Van de Wetering told jurors the fraud was perpetrated primarily by Onstad and Augare, who each pleaded guilty to several fraud charges last week. Conti told FBI investigators the returned money was meant to be a donation to the Blackfeet community.

Van de Wetering argued that Conti was the victim of overreaching federal attorneys “gung ho” to prosecute embezzlement cases.

“Every last penny that Gary Conti received from Po’Ka he earned,” Van de Wetering said. “The evidence will show you he is a generous man.”

The now-defunct Po’Ka Project was meant to become a reservation-wide children’s mental health system started by federal grant money and eventually completely funded by the tribe.

But the tribe could not keep up with increasing in-kind contributions required under the federal grant and meant to gradually transfer the program to Blackfeet control. The program’s leaders doctored claims, records and invoices to keep the federal money flowing, prosecutors allege.

Conti faces eight separate fraud counts, including bankruptcy fraud. Prosecutors said he did not disclose his income from his involvement in the Po’Ka Project in his 2009 bankruptcy filing in Oklahoma.

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Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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