- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A former Chippewa Cree tribal council member pleaded guilty Monday to embezzlement, tax evasion and other federal charges as part of a wide-ranging investigation into corruption within the northern Montana tribe.

John “Chance” Houle entered the pleas during an appearance before U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Great Falls. Morris set sentencing for March 19.

The case emerged from a federal probe into the misuse of government stimulus money on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

Three felony charges against Houle each carry a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Previously sealed court documents show Houle also agreed to pay $121,000 in restitution for evading taxes between 2009 and 2011. Prosecutors said the money is owed on $412,563 in unreported income that Houle received through bribes and kickbacks.

Houle tried to conceal the payments by having them made to his children and to an entity known as the Flying Rock Cattle Co., court documents show.

Houle’s attorney, Jason Holden, said his client has accepted responsibility and there’s no doubt he will spend time in prison. But Holden added that he hopes Morris takes into consideration Houle’s role as a tribal leader.

“Chance is an individual who did a lot for his community,” Holden said. “We hope to show the judge that regardless of these criminal convictions for which he is fully accepting responsibility, he should be sentenced appropriately.”

Under a plea agreement, additional charges against Houle would be dismissed and prosecutors would recommend he be allowed to serve his sentences concurrently with one another. Morris will have the final say.

Prosecutors said Houle received $306,987 between 2009 and 2011 in exchange for contracts he awarded to Hunter Burns Construction Co., which was partly owned by James Eastlick Jr., a former psychologist at the reservation’s health clinic.

Eastlick pleaded guilty in April to aiding and abetting theft from an Indian tribal government receiving federal funding.

Houle also was accused of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from a bank account for the Chippewa Cree Rodeo Association. Houle and another tribal member disguised the payments to look like legitimate rodeo expenses, prosecutors said, and he received cash and money to buy a vehicle for his daughter.

Prosecutors will recommend at his sentencing that Houle repay the money he took from the tribe and the rodeo association.

The Chippewa Cree corruption probe already has netted guilty pleas from multiple tribal officials and from consultants and companies awarded contracts for work on the reservation


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