Judge weighs sentence in Choctaw Nation casino fraud case

Jason Merida, the former head of construction for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is seen on a 2009 hunting excursion that was financed by a company that defrauded the tribe. Photo from Pueblo of Acoma Big Game Trophy Hunts

A federal judge in Oklahoma is considering how to punish a former Choctaw Nation employee who was convicted in a casino corruption case.

Jason Brett Merida, a tribal member who served as executive director of construction, was found guilty last November on six out of seven bribery, theft, money laundering and tax fraud charges. A federal jury heard that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts, trips and other items of value from companies that performed casino work.

Merida almost learned his fate at a sentencing hearing on May 5. But since the parties remain in dispute over the punishment, Judge James H. Payne ordered additional briefs that were submitted on Tuesday.

"In his capacity as executive director, Merida held a position of trust for the Choctaw Nation and carried out the responsibilities of directing all the construction activities of the Nation during the fraud," federal prosecutors wrote in their brief, arguing that Merida should be treated as a "public official" and punished more harshly.

Defense attorneys, on the other hand, contend Merida was not a "public official." If the judge agrees, the sentencing might not be as strict.

This photo from October 2012 shows the addition of a hotel to the Choctaw Casino in Pocola, Oklahoma. Photo from Facebook

"Merida was not elected to his position, and he worked at the pleasure of the Chief and Assistant Chief, both of whom could fire him at will anytime," defense attorneys wrote in their filing. "While he had substantial supervisory authority, the nature of his employment was more akin to that of a private employee."

Pre-sentencing reports are not currently available to the public. But federal prosecutors are seeking anywhere from 14 years to 17.5 years in prison for Merida, according to an earlier filing from his attorneys.

If the judge goes along with the recommendation, Merida would be sentenced to a prison term far longer than any of the other defendants. Several other people have been sentenced for their roles in the scheme -- the longest punishment was five years and the second longest was four years.

Payne has not scheduled a sentencing date. Merida has previously indicated that he will take his case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals after learning his fate.

Related Stories:
Last defendant to be sentenced for Choctaw Nation casino fraud (4/27)
FBI agent discusses probe in Choctaw Nation casino fraud case (4/8)
Former Choctaw Nation employee plans appeal in criminal case (11/24)
Former employee found guilty for cheating Choctaw Nation (11/21)
Choctaw Nation releases statement after guilty verdict (11/21)
Trial into Choctaw Nation fraud winds down with final testimony (11/20)
Leader of Choctaw Nation faces tough questions in criminal trial (11/19)
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Trial exposes fraud against Choctaw Nation for gaming project (11/14)
Trial continues in theft linked to Choctaw Nation casino work (11/07)
Trial opens in case connected to Choctaw Nation casino work (10/31)
Choctaw Nation audit uncovered overbilling for casino work (08/06)
Six indicted in connection with Choctaw Nation casino work (08/05)

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