- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - The Chippewa Cree Tribe is being required to pay up front for work on a $361 million water project after several tribal officials and companies were convicted on corruption charges related to the project, according to a federal official and the head of the tribal corporation building the project.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation typically would release money annually for federally-funded projects such as the pipeline on Montana’s Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

That changed about eight months ago in response to the corruption convictions that stemmed from tribal leaders taking federal money meant for the pipeline project, said Joe Waller, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General. Among those convicted was former state Rep. Tony Belcourt, who was sentenced in August to 7 1/2 years in prison on theft, bribery and tax-evasion charges.

The tribe, through the Chippewa Cree Construction Corporation, is now required to submit invoices and receipts for pipeline costs. Only after those are validated do federal officials release money to cover the costs.

Waller said any restitution from the criminal cases will be paid into a dedicated bank account so it can be used to pay for the water project. Both tribal officials and the Bureau of Reclamation must approve payments from the account.



Chippewa Cree Construction chief executive officer Larry Morsette said construction began in September. It had been delayed while the tribe and the Bureau of Reclamation worked out how federal funds would be provided in the wake of the corruption cases.

Morsette said paying up front has not been a problem so far. Invoices are being submitted to federal officials for reimbursement every two weeks to keep the costs from piling up, he said.

The Rocky Boy’s/North Central Montana Regional Water System Project was approved by Congress in 2002. It’s being built to ensure the tribe’s water is compliant with federal safety regulations will bring fresh water to as many as 30,000 people on and off the reservation.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s 2015 budget includes $4.1 million for the pipeline.

About 20 miles of the pipeline have been installed, Morsette said. The remaining work, which includes a water treatment plant, is expected to take another 10 years, he said.

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