A federal grand jury has indicted nine former Winnebago Tribal Council members for their roles in an alleged conspiracy to steal money from the tribe’s casino, U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg said Wednesday.
Each was charged with conspiracy, theft and misapplication of funds belonging to an Indian gaming establishment, and wire fraud.
The indicted former tribal council members include: John Blackhawk, 61; Darwin Snyder, 49; Thomas Snowball Jr., 55; Louis Houghton, 69; Lawrence Payer, 70; Travis Mallory, 38; Charles Aldrich, 48; Morgan Earth, 70; and Ramona Wolfe, 76.
Sharon Redhorn-Chamberlain, a member of a group that sought to oust the former council members, said she was relieved to learn of the indictments.
“I’m just really happy that our people finally get justice,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming. Now the healing can begin.”
An arraignment hearing likely will be held in early August, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
If convicted of the charges, each could face prison terms of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000.
In February 2015, a tribal investigative committee empowered by the Winnebago tribal council to look into allegations of corruption released a report showing council members had given themselves large raises and bonuses and handed tens of thousands of dollars through loans and discretionary grants to tribal members, many of whom were likely voters.
The grand jury’s 11-count indictment focuses on the defendants’ alleged role in a conspiracy to steal tribal casino funds. However, the indictment also notes the large salary increases and bonuses those former council members granted themselves.
According to the indictment, each defendant received a salary in excess of $80,000 in 2013 and $87,000 in 2014. Their salaries had been increased by about 35 percent in February 2013, retroactive to Oct. 1, 2012.
Because the large salary increase was retroactive, each defendant received lump sum distributions on Feb. 22, 2013, ranging from $8,300 to $11,600. In addition, each defendant received separate bonuses totaling $6,000 in 2013 and $11,000 in 2014.
In addition, the defendants devised and executed a plan to grant themselves funds from the WinnaVegas Casino without accounting for them through the tribe’s payroll department or approving their distribution at a regular tribal council meeting, according to the indictment.
The indictment also alleges the Winnebago Gaming Commission never approved the distributions, contrary to the tribe’s and casino's policies.
The distributions to defendants were paid through the use of casino gift certificates and pre-paid debit cards paid for by the casino.
The total amount of gift certificates issued to the defendants in 2013 and 2014 was $87,000. The total amount loaded to the debit cards of the defendants in 2013 and 2014 was $240,500.
The defendants later attempted to justify the casino disbursements by claiming they had earned the funds by taking on additional oversight duties for the casino. However, the indictment alleges, those defendants already had responsibility to oversee the casino and were not licensed vendors authorized to receive payments directly from the casino.
The FBI investigated the case.
“These individuals used their elected official positions to enrich themselves and in the process betrayed the trust of their peers and those they were elected to serve,” said Randy Thysse, supervisory agent in charge, in a news release.