Judge cites lack of proof of fraud, federal cases still pending
A state judge has denied the Hill County attorney’s request to file felony charges against a Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation tribal council member, but John “Chance” Houle still faces three trials in federal court alleging fraud, corruption and embezzlement at the reservation.
The Hill County Attorney’s Office had requested an order allowing it to charge Houle with two counts of fraud or forgery, alleging he used another’s name in buying a pickup truck with funds taken from the Bear Paw Indian Rodeo Association.
Last week, District Judge Dan Boucher denied the motion, saying the dealership received payment in full and that the person whose name was used — Tiffany Houle — did not report being deceived, defrauded or damaged in any way.
“In fact, it appears a vehicle title was issued, which established her as the owner of the truck,” Boucher wrote in his order.
Houle, who was charged last year in a federal case alleging embezzlement of federal stimulus act dollars, with the charges dismissed later that year, has been charged again in three cases alleging fraud and embezzlement of money at the reservation— including buying the truck cited in the Hill County case — and is set for three upcoming trials in federal court in Great Falls.
The first trial, with Houle the co-defendant with Rocky Boy resident Wade Colliflower and Mark Leischner of Laurel, is scheduled for Dec. 8, another trial with Houle and Colliflower as co-defendants is set for Jan. 20 and the third trial, in which Houle is the only defendant, is set for Feb. 2.
In the Montana case, the county attorney alleged that Colliflower, who had access to the funds in the bank account of the Bear Paw Indian Rodeo Association, withdrew a $15,000 cashier’s check May 28, 2010, from that account. He told federal investigators that it was part of a kickback scheme of Houle’s used to hide the origin of the cash, a court document says.
The federal indictment involving the transaction says Colliflower withdrew $22,000 from the Chippewa Cree Rodeo Association the day before and deposited it into the Bear Paw Indian Rodeo Association account. In that indictment, which says the Chippewa Cree Rodeo Association received more than $2 million in deposits between June 2009 and July 2010, Houle and Colliflower are charged with conspiracy to embezzle tribal funds, theft from an Indian tribal organization and theft.
In the Hill County case, Houle was accused of using the $15,000 check and cash to buy a 2004 Ram 3500 pickup truck, and forging Tiffany Houle’s name on the bill of sale, odometer disclosure statement and application for a title, which then was issued to Tiffany Houle. Colliflower told the investigators that John Chance Houle intended to use the vehicle as a feed truck on his ranch.
When a federal special agent interviewed Tiffany Houle, she showed him a signature on a document, which was significantly different than the signatures on the truck purchase documents, the Hill County court document says.
During the interview, she requested an attorney and the agent terminated the interview and was unable to ask additional questions, the document says.
In his order, Boucher writes that the elements of the state charges — a charge of deceptive practices and and two alternate charges, theft of identity or forgery, and a charge of alteration or forgery of certificate of ownership or title, all felonies — require fraud or lack of consent in using information.
Boucher writes that Tiffany Houle never told the agent that Chance Houle did not have permission to buy the truck for her or use her name, and the Havre car dealer received payment in full.
“(The dealership) received full consideration in exchange for the truck and Tiffany Houle was now the owner of a 2004 Ram 3500,” he wrote.
He also wrote that, as the state did not show Chance Houle gained any economic benefit from the transaction, it cited the wrong punishment in the theft of identity charge — a maximum of six months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,500, rather than up to ten years in prison and a $50,000 fine, as listed in the request to file charges.
“This court presumes the State is frustrated by the circumstances which brought this matter to its current position,” Boucher wrote in his conclusion. “A reasonable reading of the (motion to file charges) could lead one to conclude Houle took monies belonging to Bear Paw Indian Association and applied the funds for personal gain, whether his or Tiffany Houle’s. That is not the issue presented in (the motion), nor does it seem the State would have jurisdiction over such if the taking of funds was criminal.”
He wrote that, setting aside the source of the money, it should not be illegal to buy something for someone else if no one is defrauded or suffers damage.
“In this case, documents were signed at the dealership without Tiffany Houle (the ultimate owner) being present and the dealership received its full consideration,” Boucher wrote. “Ms. Houle did not report having been deceived, defrauded, or damaged in any way.”