BILLINGS — Criminal charges are pending against three senior officials with the Crow tribe who were involved in an attempt last year to oust its chairman and install new leadership, according to court documents and the tribal prosecutor.
Attorneys for the three officials denied the allegations, saying the charges were politically motivated and appeared timed to disrupt the reservation’s upcoming elections.
Arrest warrants stemming from the charges were issued for Crow Vice Chairman Carlson “Duke” Goes Ahead, Vice Secretary Shawn Backbone and tribal Sen. Frank White Clay, prosecutor Daniel Minnis said Thursday.
The criminal counts include official misconduct, theft of financial documents and criminal trespass. Under tribal law, the defendants could face a maximum sentence of one year in jail if convicted on the most serious charges.
The case centers on a power struggle that unfolded on the reservation in January 2019, when opponents of Crow Chairman Alvin “A.J.” Not Afraid, Jr. held a recall election to oust him and Secretary R. Knute Old Crow.
In the wake of that election, Goes Ahead and Backbone assumed leadership over the tribe. Their supporters removed dozens of boxes of financial documents and accused Not Afraid of mismanaging the tribe’s money.
Not Afraid and Old Crow were re-installed after Special Judge Eldena Bear Don’t Walk issued an injunction last March that blocked the recall election results.
“It’s not a political issue. It’s an issue of not following the rules,” Minnis told The Associated Press. “It’s akin to the impeachment proceedings currently happening in Congress. You can’t make it easy to pull an ouster. You can’t cut corners.”
Others from the tribe were also involved in the removal of documents, but Minnis said the three defendants had orchestrated the scheme and no one else faces charges.
An attorney for Goes Ahead and Backbone said the 2019 recall election had been held in accordance with the Crow Constitution and the two officials had legitimate access to the financial documents that were removed.
“This is the vice chair of the tribe and the vice secretary. If they don’t have access to those documents, something is wrong,” said Thomas Towe, a Billings attorney who has sought to uphold the recall election in a case still pending before the special tribal judge.
An attorney who has represented White Clay and the tribe’s legislative branch, Thor Hoyte, accused Not Afraid of contriving the criminal charges as a “politically-motivated hail-Mary” ahead of the November election.
“It is clearly a politically-motivated prosecution, a malicious prosecution,” Hoyte said.
Not Afraid said he did not have a direct role in the prosecution, which he said was initiated by others within his administration.
Minnis, who was appointed to the prosecutor’s post Jan. 13 and previously worked as a Montana public defender, said the the criminal allegations came after he received more than 400 pages of evidence in the case earlier this month. Those included affidavits, newspaper articles, reports and other documents, he said.
Minnis declined to give further details, saying the material included confidential criminal justice information that could not be disclosed.
The boxes of documents removed from the tribe’s finance department last year were later turned over to federal investigators, Towe and Hoyte said.
The documents were initially taken by investigators with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and 41 boxes of files were later turned over by the agency to the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General, said Nancy DiPaolo, external affairs director for the office.
The materials were returned to the tribe in November, she said.
Investigators have conducted several probes of the Crow Tribe in recent years that found tens of millions of dollars in federal funding had been misspent or could not be accounted for.
Not Afraid inherited many of those problems when he took office and said he’s been seeking to clean up the tribe’s finances.
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