HAVRE – A federal appeals court has upheld the U.S. Interior Department’s ruling ordering the Chippewa Cree Tribe to pay former Tribal Chair Ken St. Marks an estimated $650,000 in damages under whistleblower legislation.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously upheld the Interior Department’s 2016 decision.
Three times St. Marks was elected tribal chair by popular vote, only to be removed by the council.
The court ruled that St. Marks was entitled to back pay, front pay, travel expenses, and some legal expenses for what would have been his four-year term as tribal chair.
St. Marks claimed, and the Interior Department agreed, that he was retaliated against because he had reported that large sums of money were missing from the tribe’s $27 million allocation from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The money had been awarded to the tribe in 2010 for a massive program aimed at providing quality drinking water on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.
St. Marks owned a construction company that had a contract for part of the project, and he reported that he could see first-hand how money was being misspent.
St. Marks’ complaints triggered an expansion of the Guardians Project, an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Helena into corruption at Rocky Boy. More than a dozen Rocky Boy officials were snared in the scandal, including former State Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, Trial Council Member Chance Houle, the director of the Rocky Boy Health Clinic, Fawn Tadios, and Stone Child College President Melody Henry, all of whom were imprisoned for money stolen from various federal programs.
An equal number of businessmen from Havre, Great Falls and Billings went to jail for collusion with the wrongdoers. Former Havre School Board President Shad Huston was imprisoned for thievery by his private business from reservation funds.
Order has been since been restored on the reservation, a new tribal council has been elected, and tensions have eased.
But Jay Dubow, an attorney with the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton, which represents the tribe, said Thursday the last chapter in the case may not have been written. He said his clients have not decided what to do next, but they could seek a rehearing before the Ninth Circuit or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’m not saying we will do either of those things,” he said. “But we are leaving our options open.”
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