Corruption had long been a staple of some Montana tribal governments, but after the American Recovery and Reinvestment (“stimulus bill”) monies flooded Indian country with millions of dollars, the focus towards how tribes have spent money allotted to help their poorest members has been increased with pressure from all fronts from politicians, citizens, to tribal members themselves. With only $2.3 million recouped from $69 million in “questionable expenditures” according to a recent independent Associated Press audit, in 2011 then FBI Director Robert Mueller ordered FBI offices to combat rampant corruption on Indian reservations. Along with the Office of the Inspector General, FBI, and IRS, the Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter heads the Montana Guardians Project has been chosen to oversee – as well as be overwhelmed – potential corruption has been a welcome to many tribal members who have seen those in tribal government get rich while the rest of the populace often stagnates economically.
Indian Country Today Media Network recently discussed the MGP and its mission with Cotter.
Why was it decided that the Montana Guardians Project was needed?
In Montana, the Stimulus funds went in significant part to Indian country projects. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had historically received most of its corruption cases involving federal programs from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) with jurisdiction over the money, so the Guardians were created as a partnership of OIG and the Bureau to merge and synchronize resources and talents to address this relatively narrow but important problem: public corruption in Indian country.
As the Project developed, the U.S. Attorney’s conclusions that a serious public integrity issue existed was validated – repeatedly – by complaints from residents of Indian country who knew that much of the money coming to the reservation community was not getting to the people it was designed to help. After a year of coordinated investigations it was clear that the issue of corruption was pervasive and in some cases very broadly imbedded; meaning that embezzlement, theft, conversion, and bribery could be found in multiple programs being managed by multiple subjects over long periods of time – not isolated incidents confined to single episodes by discreet numbers of defendants.
How have tribes cooperated so far?
All federal grants and contracts – i.e., 638 contracts – require full cooperation with the Inspector General from the Department responsible for the grant or contract. The consequence of refusing cooperation is, or can be, the termination of continued funding. The Guardians have not encountered significant lack of cooperation. Obviously some sources of information have been wholeheartedly forthcoming while others have been more guarded. There is no significant uniformity in the answer to that question.
Do you think the Montana Guardians Project would be a good blueprint for states with similar tribal corruption problems?
We have found the Guardians Project to be a good model. It could certainly be applied in similar situations in other districts, but like all partnerships and task force models, success or failure often depends on the commitment of individual investigators. Without a core team of energized and able investigators it would not be successful regardless of the quality of the concept. Fortunately, we have one agent who has a long record of important and successful prosecutions of corruption in Indian country, with an impeccable record of excellence in his case work, along with several agents who, although not as experienced, are dedicated to the mission and have great talent and work ethic. The Project has also been favored to have the support of the Internal Revenue Service which adds an important dimension to the investigative effort.
What are the goals that the MGP hopes to accomplish for the future in regards to helping tribes fight corruption in regards to money allotted to help them?
First and foremost, to expose and prosecute corrupt actors. Secondly, to deter others from such corrupt activity by making clear that embezzlement and bribery will likely be discovered and the consequences significant for stealing from federal grant funds approved to better the overall condition of Indian communities. Finally, to provide federal agencies with anecdotal evidence and real world tools that will allow them to better oversee federal monies – to insure that it gets used for the purposes intended.