Lawrence Jace Killsback, former president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, was sentenced to prison Thursday after pleading guilty to years of over-billing for official travel.
Killsback’s attorneys cast him as a modern-day Robin Hood, saying the money he pocketed from over-billing tribal, state and federal entities went to support community basketball programs or to help neighbors heat their homes during the winter.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters said Killsback may well have put some of the ill-gained money toward people in need, but that the money was not his to spend as he wished.
Killsback admitted to criminal investigators that he spent some of the money on his own student loan and made child support payments.
“So it wasn’t all used for some philanthropic or altruistic purpose,” the judge said.
Killsback’s family and friends sat on one side of the courtroom, and roughly a dozen others sat opposite.
After the hearing ended, a brief shoving match broke out in the gallery between people in the two groups, broken up by other friends and family. When a verbal confrontation ensued in the hallway outside, a U.S. Marshal asked people to leave.
Killsback was sentenced to six months in federal prison for falsifying hotel receipts to inflate the number of days stayed or nightly rates, and for seeking duplicate or triplicate reimbursement from various entities for official travel costs. The scheme spanned 2014 to 2017, according to the government.
Killsback served as the president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe from November 2016 to October 2018 and served as health director from 2014 until his election.
Watters ordered Killsback to pay $25,092 in restitution, with the bulk of it — or more than $23,000 — going to Indian Health Service, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The remainder went to entities like the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Court, and the Northern Cheyenne Historic Preservation Office.
Defense attorneys had disputed that amount, arguing the total losses amounted to $14,354.
Before being sentenced, Killsback’s attorney and brother, Dion Killsback, said the judge needed to understand the context in which Killsback committed the fraud. Dion Killsback said his brother used the fraud scheme out of frustration that he could not do enough in office to improve conditions for the Northern Cheyenne people.
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Dion Killsback compared his brother’s efforts to those of Northern Cheyenne chiefs in the past, who ate last in order to ensure his people ate first.
“Jace had tried to live like a chief,” the attorney said.
Jace Killsback apologized to his family and fellow elected officials.
“I thought doing wrong in the service of right was right,” Killsback said.
Speaking after the hearing, Busby tribal Councilman Dana Eaglefeathers said Dion Killsback’s comment was disrespectful to the tribe.
“Because in a chief’s role, a chief would never ever, ever think of stealing from his people, and never ever harm his people in any way,” Eaglefeathers said.
After his election in 2016, Killsback was removed from office by a 9-1 vote of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council in October 2017. He then won back that seat in a special election by just two votes, or 541-539.
Killsback announced in August 2018 he would resign in November, citing health issues and professional challenges. He then worked for Indian Health Service, making a salary of more than $100,000, prosecutors said. He resigned that position when asked to, due to the criminal case which was charged in June.
Watters said in court Thursday that Killsback’s case was an example of corruption among some tribal officials in Montana.
“What we see across the state over and over … is that tribal members … steal from these programs for their own purposes,” the judge said.
Watters said the “culture of fraud” that Killsback had described to criminal investigators had to stop, “because that culture hurts the tribal members themselves.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Dake had requested 10 months in prison, probation, and a separate monetary penalty against Killsback in the same amount as the restitution ordered. Watters said the restitution was sufficient and declined the forfeiture request.
The defense recommended probation only.
Killsback will serve three years of supervised release after the prison term. His family members declined to comment after the hearing.