- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - A consultant for the Blackfeet Indian tribe was convicted on more than two dozen charges by a federal jury, after prosecutors said he provided kickbacks to tribal leaders in a scheme to defraud a $9.3 million mental health program.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris set a Sept. 4 sentencing for Gary Conti.

The retired Oklahoma State University professor kicked back more than $230,000 from a federally funded project for troubled youth to accounts controlled by the program’s tribal leaders, prosecutors said.

After a four-day trial ending late Thursday, jurors found him guilty on 21 counts of wire fraud and one count each of false claims, theft of federal property, theft from a tribe, money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the government.

Each wire fraud conviction carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine. Penalties for the other charges range from a maximum of five to 10 years in prison.

Jurors found Conti not guilty of one fraud charge.

U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter referred to the defendants as “predatory opportunists” who exploited the troubled program for their personal gain. “Those who pillage public funds had best factor dire consequences into their decision to commit fraud,” he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad, who prosecuted the case, said he expects Conti to appeal based on prior statements made by his lawyer.

The defendant’s attorney, Joshua S. Van de Wetering, said no decision has been made. “We are regrouping,” Van de Wetering said.

Conti had been found guilty of bankruptcy fraud in a previous trial in which jurors could not decide in the others charges against him.

The tribe’s Po’Ka project received $9.3 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over six years starting in 2005. It was intended to become a reservation-wide children’s mental health system supported by northwestern Montana’s Blackfeet tribe without federal assistance.

Conti told FBI agents that the money was meant to be a donation to the Blackfeet community

Van de Wetering has said tribal leaders Francis Onstad and Delyle “Shanny” Augare perpetuated the fraud.

Onstad, Augare and three other people who worked on the program to provide services for troubled youth have pleaded guilty to charges related to defrauding the program. They were accused of embezzling money from the Po’Ka project and doctoring invoices to embellish the contributions the tribe was supposed to make to keep the federal grant money coming.

Onstad, Augare and Dorothy May Still Smoking, an evaluator for the project, are scheduled to be sentenced on June 5. Katheryn Sherman, the project’s coordinator, is to be sentenced the following day.

Administrative assistant Charlotte New Breast was given a probationary sentence in February and ordered to pay $50,000 in restitution.

Conti was the only defendant who sought a jury trial.


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