The former president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe has admitted filing inflated or duplicate invoices for official travel, resulting in an over-reimbursement of $14,000. Prosecutors insist the total is higher.
Lawrence Jace Killsback, 40, pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court in Billings to wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the federal government. The charges carry a maximum possible penalty of 30 years in prison.
Killsback, whose tumultuous tenure ended with his resignation in October, received a total of $20,000 in improper travel reimbursements, according to federal prosecutors.
Killsback’s attorney, Samantha Howard, estimated the fraud loss at $14,000.
Killsback requested reimbursement for the same travel expenses from multiple entities, including the federal government, the Northern Cheyenne tribe and the state of Montana. According to prosecutors, he sometimes submitted two duplicate invoices for one expense, or “triple-dipped.”
On each occasion, Killsback signed a tribal trip report document that said he had not or would not be reimbursed for the expenses by another entity.
In addition, Killsback doctored hotel receipts to change the number of days, rates or total expenses, using a software program and with the help of an unnamed co-conspirator, prosecutors say.
Some of the doctored hotel receipts were for trips on which Killsback received double or triple reimbursement, but some were for separate trips, according to the government.
Killsback’s fraudulent activity spanned 28 trips, prosecutors say. Examples include trips to Bethesda, Maryland, for the National Institute of Health Tribal Advisory Committee meeting; to Helena for the Montana Governor’s Meeting and the American Indian Health Leaders meeting; and to Atlanta for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Tribal Advisory Committee’s meeting.
Killsback did so both as the tribe’s health director, from 2014 to November 2016, and as tribal president, from November 2016 to October 2018.
Howard disputed in court Monday that her client had ever filed an invoice for travel that did not occur, as prosecutors had alleged. Instead, she said, the travel did occur but the invoices were fraudulent.
Killsback admitted to the duplicate reimbursement and falsified invoices to federal law enforcement in March, according to the government’s offer of proof.
“Killsback noted that this travel fraud happens all of the time on the reservation,” prosecutors wrote. “Killsback was aware of this scheme and described this as a culture of fraud.”
Restitution has yet to be determined and a sentencing date has not yet been set.
After the hearing Monday, Killsback declined to comment.
“Under the advice of counsel, I can’t give any comments at this time,” he said.
During his tenure, Killsback clashed frequently with members of the tribal council who accused him of improprieties both as president and during his term as health director.
The council voted to remove him from office in October 2017, an action the Bureau of Indian Affairs endorsed.
Killsback then won re-election in January 2018 by a 2-vote margin over opponent Donna Fisher.
The council persisted, publicly accusing Killsback of improperly transferring thousands of dollars’ worth of funding from a tribally-owned company but providing no further details of the allegations.
Killsback then resigned in October, citing “obstacles and opposition at every step by the legislative branch” of the tribal government.
Former Vice President Conrad Fisher served as acting president until Rynalea Whiteman Pena was sworn into the office after winning a special election in January 2019.