- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 25, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Two former executives of an online lending company owned by the Chippewa Cree Tribe embezzled more than $55,000 by funneling the money through the company to themselves and an ex-councilman who was previously convicted of corruption, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Neal Rosette and Billi Anne Morsette pleaded not guilty Tuesday to embezzlement and conspiracy charges in U.S. District Court in Great Falls.

Rosette and Morsette were the chief executive officer and the chief operating officer, respectively, for First American Capital Resources, the tribe’s first attempt at providing short-term loans at high interest rates. That company was later overtaken by another started by the tribe in 2010 called Plain Green, which had financial and technical backing from the Texas-based Think Finance Inc.

Rosette and Morsette went on to play leading roles with Plain Green, but both have since left the company. Plain Green’s current leaders are defendants in a civil lawsuit accusing them and Think Finance of making illegal loans and hiding behind tribal sovereignty that grants Native American tribes immunity from most legal actions. The defendants in that lawsuit have asked a judge to dismiss the case brought by two Vermont women who borrowed money from Plain Green.

Federal prosecutors in Montana accuse Rosette and Morsette of withdrawing money from the tribe’s federally funded grants and contracts account by writing checks to First American Capital Resources. They then wrote checks from the First American account to themselves and to a Chippewa Cree Rodeo Association account controlled by former tribal councilman John “Chance” Houle, according to the indictment.

The First American account was used to embezzle $55,792 in 2010, prosecutors said.

Rosette and Morsette’s attorneys are listed as federal public defender Evangelo Arvanetes and Great Falls lawyer Paul Gallardo. Neither returned calls for comment Tuesday.

The indictment says that Houle also signed checks from the First American account, but he is not named as a defendant. He is serving a 5 ½-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to separate embezzlement and tax-evasion charges in a widespread corruption investigation into the Rocky Boy’s reservation.

Court documents last year revealed that Rosette and Morsette received hidden payments that amounted to 5 percent of the tribe’s revenues from Plain Green. The payments were made through a management company called Encore Services LLC that the tribe partnered with to start First American Capital Resources.

After an arbitration hearing, Encore was ordered to repay the tribe more than $1.1 million that was passed on to Rosette and Morsette.

Rosette acknowledged at the time that he and Morsette received the payments, but they did not ask for them. They were given to them by Plain Green’s board of directors because the board was concerned about their plans to start a consulting business advising other tribes on opening their own lending companies.

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