New charges filed in Crow fund scandal

2004-08-31T23:00:00Z New charges filed in Crow fund scandalCLAIR JOHNSON Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 31, 2004 11:00 pm  • 

A former finance director of the Crow Tribe, already convicted in a kickback scheme to steal tribal money, faces new charges related to the corruption scandal that led to the resignation of former chairman Clifford G. Birdinground.

Kelly Dee Passes, 37, of Crow Agency, who was finance director in Birdinground's administration, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to two new indictments. One charges him and co-defendant Elliot Mountain Sheep, 36, of Crow Agency, with conspiracy to defraud the Crow Tribe and theft from a tribal organization.

The second indictment charges Passes with obstruction of justice for allegedly trying to cover up his actions.

Mountain Sheep also appeared Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Richard Anderson and pleaded not guilty. Anderson released both men without bond.

The obstruction charge has a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The conspiracy and theft counts have maximum penalties of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Federal prosecutors in separate indictments have accused Passes of defrauding the Crow Tribe of an estimated $64,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad said Passes and Mountain Sheep conspired with Birdinground, who was indicted in April 2002 in a corruption scheme, to steal tribal money to pay for Birdinground's legal defense.

From March to June 2002, Passes made up three fake contracts in which Mountain Sheep would receive payments from the tribe for various services, including repairing vehicles and providing fence posts, the indictment said.

Mountain Sheep cashed three tribal checks totaling $25,365 at a Hardin bank and then gave $25,000 cash to Birdinground, the indictment said. At about the same time, Birdinground made cash payments on his retainer agreement with a Billings defense attorney. The attorney was not identified in the indictment.

Passes also is accused of trying to cover up his actions. Knowing that a federal grand jury was investigating corruption in the tribe's administration, Passes prepared and had Birdinground sign four bogus memorandums designed to absolve him of responsibility for his role in the fraudulent contracts, prosecutors said.

Passes is awaiting sentencing on three earlier conspiracy convictions. He pleaded guilty in July to making up phony or inflated contracts and issuing checks on those contracts to co-defendants. Passes admitted that he had the co-defendants cash the checks and that he took most of the money and gave it to Birdinground for his legal fees.

One of the co-defendants, Harvest Dawn White, 30, of Lodge Grass, pleaded guilty to charges. Passes' brother, Brenden Dean Passes, 29, of Crow Agency, and Tamara Lynn Findley, 33, of Hardin, have pleaded not guilty.

Birdinground is not charged in the latest indictments but has his own legal problems. Last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied his request to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea to a bribery charge. The court affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, who said Birdinground knew what he was doing when he admitted to taking bribes.

Birdinground pleaded guilty in October 2002 to taking $2,700 in so-called "bird-dog” fees from a former Billings car dealership for arranging the purchase of vehicles by the tribe and tribal members. The fees were paid for his part in setting up vehicle sales worth $559,000 in 2000. Birdinground resigned as chairman in September 2002 as a condition of his plea agreement.

Cebull sentenced Birdinground to 37 months in prison but stayed the sentence while the former chairman appealed.

The judge also ordered restitution of $11,101 to the tribe and its Little Bighorn Casino.

The cases against Passes and Mountain Sheep will be heard by Cebull.

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