FBI: Some Embezzled Po’Ka Money Spent in Casinos

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Two leaders of a Blackfeet program for troubled youth charged with embezzling from the federally funded program made numerous withdrawals of that money in casinos, according to an FBI agent’s statement unsealed Monday.

Gary Conti, an Oklahoma State University professor hired as the project’s national monitor, kicked back $230,500 that he and his business, Learning Associates, received from the Po’Ka Project to a bank account for the Child Family Advocacy Fund, the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Jason Grende said in a May affidavit.

The two people with access to that account, former Po’Ka Project director Francis Onstad and assistant director Delyle “Shanny” Augare, split that money and other funds in the account, transferring it to their personal bank accounts between 2008 and 2011, Grende said.

A financial analysis of their personal bank accounts showed numerous cash withdrawals made at casinos, Grende’s affidavit said. It did not say how much was withdrawn or at which casinos.

David Ness, the court-appointed attorney for Onstad and Augare, did not immediately return messages about the affidavit.

Onstad, Augare, Conti and three others were arraigned last week on a total of 37 criminal counts related to the now-defunct Po’Ka Project, which received more than $9.3 million in federal funding between 2005 and 2011.

Federal prosecutors allege that more than $4.6 million in federal money was lost through embezzlement and fake invoices for matching funds the tribe was supposed to provide.

All six pleaded not guilty on Thursday.

Conti told FBI agents last December the money he gave to the Child Family Advocacy Fund was meant to be donations to the Blackfeet community.

He told agents his goal was to donate any extra money he received from the Po’Ka Project back to the Blackfeet “for the community good,” he told agents.

Grende’s affidavit, filed under seal in May with a search-warrant application, provides the first details of the FBI investigation into allegations of wrongdoing by the leaders of the Po’Ka Project.

The investigation began in June 2011 when a former Po’Ka worker tipped off agents in the Shelby office that grant administrators were embezzling money. Grende’s affidavit describes 10 interviews with project employees and the investigation into the financial transactions of Augare, Onstad, Conti and their associated businesses.

The Child Family Advocacy Fund run by Onstad and Augare was previously called the Blackfeet Youth Development Fund and was once affiliated with the national Christian Children’s Fund, which is now ChildFund.

The fund solicited donations to sponsor a Blackfeet child, at one point providing for 500 children, the former employees said. Augare told investigators that money from the fund also went to victims of domestic violence.

ChildFund spokeswoman Cynthia Price said the organization has not operated on the Blackfeet reservation since 2003.

Augare and Onstad changed the name to the Child Family Advocacy Fund, and would not allow any other employee access to the fund’s records after the Po’Ka Project began, Grende’s affidavit said.

Two former employees said they believed the fund was still operating as late as 2008 and 2009. Augare told FBI investigators the fund stopped operating in 2006 and he did not receive any compensation from the fund after that year.

FBI investigators showed Augare a copy of a 2009 transaction for more than $57,000 from Conti’s business to the Child Family Advocacy Fund, and records showing $14,800 of that went to Augare and $15,000 went to Onstad.

Augare terminated the interview and left the building at that point, Grende said in his affidavit.

Onstad declined to discuss the fund with investigators.

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