HELENA — Three former Blackfeet tribal leaders have reached plea deals on federal charges they held illegal big-game hunts for country musicians and an outdoors television show’s hosts by allowing them to shoot elk, moose, deer and a black bear on the reservation without licenses.
Former Blackfeet Tribal Business Council members Jay St. Goddard and Jay Wells, and former tribal Fish and Game Director Gayle Skunkcap Jr. held the hunts in 2010 and 2011 for up-and-coming stars, including Josh Thompson and Justin Moore.
The men exchanged the hunts for concerts by the country artists and for exposure on a show called “Sovereign Sportsman” available on DirecTV and Dish Network. Federal prosecutors say that amounted to an illegal sale of the tribe’s wildlife, while supporters of the men say they were trying to bring money into the poor reservation and raise its profile.
Attorneys for St. Goddard, Wells and former tribal Fish and Game Director Gayle Skunkcap Jr. filed the proposed settlements Friday with federal prosecutors. The deals call for the men to plead guilty to the illegal sale of wildlife and theft from a tribal government receiving federal funding.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office would drop four other charges under the plea deals.
The sale of illegal wildlife charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while the theft charge carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon must approve the proposed settlements before they can take effect. The judge canceled the March 12 trial and set a hearing for Tuesday in Great Falls.
There are only between five and 10 hunting licenses for each big-game species available to non-tribal members each year, with each license costing between $1,500 and $12,000 depending on the animal.
Thompson shot a bull elk in an October 2010 hunt. “Sovereign Sportsman” co-owner Eric Richey shot a black bear and co-host Forrest Parker shot a moose. Curtis Flemming, host of a fly fishing television show, shot a mule deer during that hunt.
In 2011, Moore shot a bull elk during a hunt, and musician Mark Cooke shot a moose. Musician John Michael Montgomery also participated in a hunt but never actually shot an animal.
Thompson arrived on the country music scene in 2010 with the album “Way Out Here.” Moore’s “Outlaws Like Me” was a top 10 country album in 2011.
Federal wildlife agents received a tip in September 2011 from an outfitter concerned that country stars were poaching animals on the reservation, prosecutors said in court documents filed Monday.
The FBI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an investigation into poaching and public corruption after Deputy State Fire Marshal Dick Swingley received a call early that October of a fire at the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department.
Authorities determined that the fire likely started at the secretary’s desk, where receipts and licenses were kept for hunting on the reservation.
Just a few days after the fire, St. Goddard and Wells requested a buffalo and an elk hunt be approved by the tribal business council, with benefits to go to the Tribal Cancer Foundation.
This was an attempt to legitimize the hunts, prosecutors alleged. But no cancer fund was ever established, and no money from the hunts was deposited into the foundation, they said.
But money did go to the tribe’s Pikuni Rodeo and the International Indian Finals Rodeo, a new circuit to which the Pikuni Rodeo belonged.
Richey donated an undisclosed amount of money to the rodeo, and another person donated $12,000 in exchange for a wildlife hunt, prosecutors alleged.
St. Goddard, Wells and Skunkcap are Pikuni Rodeo committee members. St. Goddard withdrew the tribe’s rodeo from the Indian National Finals Rodeo circuit to join the separate International Indian Finals Rodeo because of a dispute with the judges after his son lost a competition, prosecutors said.
“Creating a new rodeo is an expensive venture, which requires sponsors to help ensure that it continues to exist,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad wrote in the court filing.
The three former tribal leaders had argued that it is customary for a council member to grant a dignitary a hunt on the reservation. The plea deals were struck after Haddon ruled the men cannot call tribal elders to testify that tribal customs carry the same weight as written ordinances under tribal law.
“This custom has been practiced throughout history and continues to this day,” St. Goddard attorney Thane Johnson wrote in court filings.
Federal prosecutors responded by saying only the judge, not jurors, can decide questions of law, such as whether customs have equal footing as written tribal laws. Haddon agreed and ruled the witnesses would not be allowed to testify at trial.
The proposed plea agreements allow the three men to appeal that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If the appellate court rules that the elders can testify about tribal customs, then the case will go back to trial and federal prosecutors will reinstate the charges they dropped under the plea agreement.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said it cannot comment while the case is still pending.
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