A former finance director of the Crow Tribe and three others accused of stealing thousands of dollars from the tribe to pay for the legal defense of ex-chairman Clifford G. Birdinground on corruption charges appeared in U.S. District Court on Thursday.
Kelly Dee Passes, 36, of Crow Agency, the tribe's former finance director, was charged in three two-count indictments with conspiracy and theft from an Indian organization.
Charged as co-defendants were Passes' brother, Brenden Dean Passes, 28, of Crow Agency; Harvest Dawn White, 30, of Lodge Grass, and Tamara Lynn Findley, 33, of Hardin.
All defendants pleaded not guilty and were released without bond pending trial before U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull.
The indictments allege that from September 2001 through August 2002, Kelly Dee Passes conspired with Birdinground and others to use fraudulent contracts to obtain tribal money and then to give the proceeds to Birdinground so he could pay a private attorney to defend him on corruption charges.
About $38,700 was allegedly stolen.
Birdinground, 67, of Lodge Grass, who was elected and assumed office in July 2000, was indicted in April 2002 on charges of conspiracy, theft from the Crow Tribe, accepting bribes and theft from the Little Big Horn Casino. He pleaded guilty in October 2002 to one count of bribery for taking "bird-dog fees” from a Billings car dealership for arranging the purchase of vehicles by the tribe and tribal members.
Some charges dismissed
Two other defendants and the car dealership also were indicted, but charges against them were dismissed.
Cebull sentenced Birdinground in September to 37 months in prison and ordered restitution of $11,101 to the tribe and casino.
Birdinground tried to withdraw his guilty plea and take his case to trial, arguing that he hadn't understood what he was doing or the consequences of his plea. He said he had only a limited understanding of written and spoken English.
Cebull ruled against Birdinground, finding that his plea was "knowing, voluntary and intelligent.”
Birdinground remains free pending a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal on whether he should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.
Billings attorney Vern Woodward represented Birdinground through his plea change. Then Birdinground replaced him with attorney Penny Strong, currently Yellowstone County's chief public defender.
The indictment against the Passes brothers alleges that on Oct. 3, 2001, Kelly Dee Passes conspired and arranged for a fictitious contract with Brenden Passes to pay him $14,000 in tribal money for the cleanup of the Crow Fair Camp Grounds and Rodeo Grounds. Brenden Passes cashed the check on Nov. 1, 2001, and gave his brother the proceeds. The same day, Kelly Dee Passes allegedly gave the money to Birdinground, who made a payment on his retainer agreement with his defense attorney also on Nov. 1.
The second indictment alleges that on Dec. 1, 2001, Kelly Dee Passes arranged for a contract with Findley in which she would be paid $10,000 for consulting services. On Dec. 4, 2001, Findley allegedly cashed two Crow Tribal checks of $5,000 each and gave Passes the money. Passes delivered the proceeds to Birdinground, who made another retainer payment to his attorney that day.
The third indictment charges that from April 15 to Aug. 9, 2002, Kelly Dee Passes set up six fraudulent contracts with White to receive tribal money for a variety of services, including welding and the supply of railroad ties. White allegedly cashed six checks totaling $14,700 and gave a portion of the proceeds to Passes, who delivered the money to Birdinground for retainer payments.
The conspiracy and tribal theft charges each carry maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.