Indictment alleges corruption within Utah tribe
Friday, December 19, 2003

The chairman of the Skull Valley Goshute Tribe of Utah stole more than $190,000 in tribal and federal funds while pushing a controversial plan to bring nuclear waste to his reservation, federal authorities alleged on Thursday.

At a press conference in Salt Lake City, the U.S. Attorney's office in Utah and the FBI announced a six-count indictment against Leon Bear, 47. They said he double-dipped into tribal bank accounts for five years and failed to report his income to the IRS, sometimes claiming to be unemployed.

"What we're talking about here is corruption, pure and simple," said FBI agent Chip Burris. "Greed combined with an abuse of public trust. In this case, the Goshute Tribe's trust."

The announcement sent waves through the state, where Bear has encountered significant opposition. On behalf of the tribe, he signed a deal with eight private utility companies to store up to 44,000 tons of nuclear waste on the tribe's 18,000-acre reservation, about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) approved the agreement, keeping financial details away from the eyes of tribal members and the public. The National Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent federal agency, is currently reviewing health, safety and other aspects of the facility.

But those agencies should be wary of moving forward, said Margene Bullcreek, a tribal member who is one of the leading critics of Bear and the waste dump. She heads Ohngo Gaudadeh Devia, a group of Goshutes who advocate returning to a more traditional form of government.

"A grand jury has recognized the call for justice," she said. "The BIA should no longer turn a blind-eye to the corruption, and the NRC should no longer ignore evidence of corruption."

Mark Echohawk, Bullcreek's attorney, said the charges "should have an impact" on the waste site. "This is the perfect example of tribal government corruption. It shouldn't be the basis of a nuclear repository," he said from his office in Idaho.

Utah Gov. Olene S. Walker hadn't seen the indictment as of yesterday afternoon, a spokesperson said. She is opposed to the facility and recently recommitted the state's campaign against it.

"These are serious allegations and we certainly want them evaluated and investigated, especially when there are questions about storing our nation's waste stockpile where there is alleged corruption," said spokesperson Amanda Covington.

Bear, however, isn't the only one who was charged by a federal grand jury late Wednesday. Three of his political opponents -- Sammy Blackbear, Marlinda Moon and Miranda Wash -- were indicted on charges of bank fraud for allegedly stealing $45,800 in tribal funds. Duncan Steadman, an attorney who worked with the trio, was also indicted for allegedly receiving $11,000 in tribal funds.

The charges stemmed from an internal tribal political dispute dating to September 2001. Blackbear, Moon and Wash, who oppose the waste site, claimed to have been elected the rightful leaders of the tribe.

The BIA refused to recognize the results of the election. But in the meantime, the group -- with Steadman's help, authorities allege -- withdrew money from tribal bank accounts anyway.

Blackbear was traveling yesterday and was not available for comment. Attempts to reach Moon and Wash were unsuccessful.

But Anne Sward Hansen, a local activist who is helping the three battle the waste dump, was baffled by their indictment. She spoke to Blackbear and said he was unaware of the charges until being contacted by a reporter. "They are kind of in the dark about this," she said.

Still, Hansen supported the action against Bear. "He's never had any accountability," she said. The money that Blackbear and his group spent during the leadership dispute "has been accounted for," she said.

Authorities yesterday were quick to point out that the nuclear industry is not involved in the alleged corruption. But money that flowed into the bank accounts Bear was using came directly from Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight power plants.

"A part of our lease arrangement with the band is that they do receive payments from PFS," said spokesperson Sue Martin, who would not disclose the amount of the payments. "But we need to emphasize that our contractual relationship is with the Skull Valley Band itself and not with any particular individual or individuals."

According to the indictment's count 1, Bear received "duplicate stipends" for business trips he took as chairman of the tribe, effectively paying himself twice through a bank account he controlled. He stole more than $25,000 in an alleged violation of theft of funds from an Indian tribal organization.

The indictment's count 2 alleges Bear "did knowingly embezzle [and] steal" more than $129,000 from the Tapai Project Office, the economic development arm the tribe set up in Salt Lake City. Martin confirmed that PFS made its payments to the Tapai Project Office.

The indictment's count 3 alleges Bear "embezzled" about $6,300 in money the BIA provided to the tribe through a contract. Bear allegedly used this money to pay himself to serve as secretary for a short period of time while also serving as chairman. This is considered theft of federal funds.

The final three counts of the indictment accuse Bear of failing to report this income to the IRS for the years of 1999, 2000 and 2001. Twice, he reported he was unemployed and once he said he only earned about $2,000, the indictment alleged.

The six-count indictment against Blackbear, Moon, Wash and Steadman accuses them of defrauding two banks where Goshute tribal funds were kept. At one point, Steadman produced a fake court order to compel bank employees into handing over the money, the indictment alleged.

Attempts to reach Steadman, 57, whose residence was listed as South Jordan, were unsuccessful. Phone numbers associated with his old law firm were all disconnected. A person at the number of a former law partner said he hadn't been heard from in several months. Other attorneys involved in the dispute have not spoken to him in months. Hansen said he may be "critically ill" but this could not be confirmed.

At one time, the state was paying the legal fees Steadman and his law partner incurred for filing a lawsuit against the BIA for approving the waste dump. Plaintiffs included Blackbear and Bullcreek, but Bullcreek dropped out and hired the Echohawk law firm to pursue her own claims against Bear. The state has reimbursed the Echohawk firm, according to documents from the Utah attorney general's office. Mark Echohawk declined to discuss this, stating that payment arrangements are confidential.

Bear did not return a request for comment placed to the Tapai Project Office. The BIA in Washington, D.C., declined comment.

According to the U.S. Attorney's office, summons will be issued to Bear and the others indicted. Bear faces up to 29 years in prison plus $1.5 million in fines for the theft and tax fraud. The bank fraud charges for Blackbear, Moon, Wash and Steadman each carry up to 30 years in jail and a fine of up to $1 million.

The Skull Valley Goshute Tribe has less than 200 members. Its remote reservation has so little infrastructure that the majority of tribal members can't live there. The are no major services available on the reservation. Bear agreed to the waste facility as a means of generating revenues.

Only a small portion of the reservation would be used for the dump. NRC officials gave preliminary approval to most parts of the tribe's proposal but said concerns about potential airplane crashes from a nearby Air Force base needed to be addressed.

Relevant Documents:
Federal Indictment (December 17, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Skull Valley Goshute Tribe -

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