Law | Politics

Former convicted leader of Crow Tribe seeks to clear his name

The flag of the Crow Tribe. Image from Manataka American Indian Council

Clifford Birdinground, a former chairman of the Crow Tribe of Montana who was convicted of bribery, is trying to clear his name by questioning the federal judge who handled his case.

In October 2002, Birdinground pleaded guilty for accepting kickbacks from a car dealership that did business with the tribe. He was sentenced to 37 months in prison.

But before he went to prison, Birdinground tried to withdraw his plea. His attorney said the former chairman could barely understand English and had trouble comprehending the case.

Former judge Richard Cebull rejected the motion. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in August 2004.

His attorney is now questioning whether Cebull was biased. After admitting that he circulated a racist e-mail about President Barack Obama, the former judge stepped down and an investigation later found that he sent "hundreds" of inappropriate messages, including some about Native Americans.

"It's our view that when Judge Cebull refused to accept (Birdinground's) motion to have his plea withdrawn, that the judge did so based on potential bias against Native Americans," attorney Lawrence Organ said told the Associated Press.

The Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, said it didn't find any bias in any of Cebull's rulings. A report released earlier this year said he went out of his way to accommodate Indian defendants and their families.

Cebull was nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court in Montana by former president George W. Bush in 2001. He became chief judge of the court in 2008.

A family from the Crow Tribe adopted President Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008. The Crow Legislature passed a resolution that called on Congress to impeach Cebull, who stepped down in May 2013.

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Attorneys for former tribal leader seek exoneration through release of Cebull emails (AP 11/26)

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