The trial of a woman accused of embezzling Chippewa Cree tribal funds, started in U.S. District Court in Great Falls Wednesday, despite her complaints about her attorney and about the trial starting too soon.
Fawn Tadios, former director of the health department at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, found little support for her position in day one of the trial, including from her own witnesses.
The trial is moving quickly, with U.S. District Judge Brian Morris telling the jury he expected them to receive the case by this afternoon to deliberate on a verdict. Today’s testimony is expected to include Tadios herself and tribal council member John “Chance” Houle, who was arraigned on multiple embezzlement and fraud charges himself Tuesday in U.S. court in Great Falls.
Tadios is accused of falsifying travel requests and using the cash advances, and her tribally issued credit card, to visit her husband, Raymond “Jake” Parker, at a federal prison camp at Yankton, South Dakota, where he was serving a 16-month sentence for embezzling from the tribe while he was chair of the Chippewa Cree Tribe’s governing council.
A special agent of the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Kelly Earl, testified that she found $11,248.79 of federal money the U.S. government had distributed to Rocky Boy’s health department that Tadios had used to pay for trips to visit Parker.
In her opening remarks, Tadios’ attorney, E. June Lord, said she believed the jury would acquit Tadios, noting that Native American tribes have their own culture and often do things differently than people off reservations.
“I think when you hear her side of the case, you will find her not guilty,” Lord said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad said otherwise in his opening statement.
While it is natural, and right and good, for family members to visit people serving a prison sentence, he said, when Tadios started dipping into public money to pay for those visits, that caused the problem.
He said the fact that the forms she submitted listed other reasons for her trips, such as to visit Indian health care sites or for conventions or conferences or training, showed her knowledge of that problem.
“So, there was an attempt to mislead someone,” he said.
Lord repeatedly asked witnesses if the fact that the Chippewa Cree Tribe is self-governing and administers its own funds means they can use the money as they wish, and if the travel requests all had been approved by the tribal health board.
She received no confirmation on the self-governance question — several witnesses, including Arden Salazar of Indian Health Services in Billings, which distributes the health system money to tribes in Montana and Wyoming, said the money must be used to provide and improve health care for the tribes.
Others said the requests for travel advances and payment of credit card expenses had been approved, but confirmed Rostad’s question of them — those requests were for travel to visit health care facilities or for conventions and conferences and so on.
Lord called Tadios’ own assistant at the health department, Diana Crow, to testify about the approval of the requests. Crow confirmed that the health board had approved the requests, but said the documents provided for her review showed nothing about the purpose of the trips.
Lord also called Harlan Baker, a tribal council member who has sat on the health board, to the stand. He confirmed that the board approved travel requests, but said he personally had not signed any of the documents Lord showed him about Tadios’ requests.
Rostad asked him if the board would approve a travel request for personal reasons, such as taking a family to Disneyland.
“No,” Baker replied.
Lord argued that Tadios was borrowing the money, then using a payroll deduction to pay the expense back to the tribe.
She called Rocky Boy health department travel coordinator and finance technician Suzanne Billy to testify. Billy confirmed that Tadios had used payroll deductions to pay back travel expenses, with a balance of $1,232,97 at the time she was fired as CEO of the health department
Under cross-examination, Billy said that was for paying back amounts overspent on travel advances. If the trip costs more than the advance, the tribe pays the employee, if the advance was more than the actual cost of the trip, the employee has to pay that back.
Rostad asked if it was correct that Tadios only was required to pay back money on one of the Yankton trips, while, in fact, on several others the tribe paid her more when she got back.
Billy confirmed that.
The director of the White Mare IHS facility in South Dakota near Yankton, Michael Horned Eagle, said Tadios had visited the facility once in the period in question. He spoke with her about two hours during her multi-day stay in the area on that occasion, he said.
Horned Eagle agreed with Lord that Tadios could have spent more time visiting the facility without his knowledge that day.
Lt. Tim Engel of the federal prison camp at Yankton said that records showed that when Tadios was at Yankton, she spent most of the entire time with Parker on the days she was there.
Lisa Overly of Lelock Travel in Havre testified that she had arranged a flight for Tadios to New Orleans. Tadios attended an Indian self-governance meeting in that city.
But just a few days before the flight, Overly testified, Tadios called to arrange for a change in the return flight, detouring to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is not far from the prison camp at Yankton. That last-minute change bumped the ticket price about $1,300 to more than $1,800, Overly said.
Special Agent Earl also testified that Tadios admitted she had used public funds for personal use.
Earl said that on some trips, Tadios would submit receipts twice — submitting a hotel receipt against her travel advance, but also submitting a credit card receipt for the same hotel expense.
“So, she was double dipping,” Earl testified.