Law | National

Former chairman of Winnebago Tribe indicted on theft charges

John Blackhawk resigned as chairman of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska in April 2015. Photo from Ho-Chunk Inc / Facebook

The former chairman of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and eight other former leaders have been indicted on theft charges.

Prosecutors filed charges against former chair John Blackhawk, Darwin Snyder, Thomas Snowball, Louis Houghton, Lawrence Payer, Travis Mallory, Charles Aldrich, Morgan Earth and Ramona Wolfe on Tuesday. The latter are all former tribal council members.

The 21-page indictment lists 11 counts against each of the defendants for allegedly stealing money from the tribe. The charges stem from the use of funds from the WinneVegas Casino for pre-paid debit cards and gift certificates that were allegedly issued to the nine former leaders.

The funds were drawn without approval from the general council, according to the indictment. The tribe's gaming commission never approved the payments either, prosecutors wrote in the filing.

As a result, the casino, and the tribe, lost at least $327,000, according to the charges.

"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," Randy Thysse, the supervisory agent in charge of the Omaha Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in a press release.

"The FBI Omaha Division will remain steadfast in aggressively investigating those responsible for perpetrating schemes like this and will continue to pursue all allegations of public corruption," Thysse said.

The incident came to light in late 2014 and early 2015 and led to the resignations of some council members. Blackhawk resigned in April 2015 after nearly 20 years on the job.

Tribal members subsequently pursued a financial investigation and removed other former leaders. They elected a new chair and, eventually, a new slate of leaders last October.

"Although this has been a devastating event for our community, our focus has been on improving communication and transparency within our government, as well as implementing internal policies to ensure that questionable activity does not occur again," Chairwoman Darla LaPointe said in a statement posted on the tribe's Facebook page on Wednesday. "Our membership expects and deserves nothing less."

"We are confident our community will recover with the resilience our people have always relied upon and our newly installed tribal council will continue to act in the best interest of the Winnebago Tribe moving forward," LaPointe said. "We will monitor and report upon the situation as it progresses and thank you for your support as our community continues to heal.”

The Winnebago Tribe has been considered a leader in economic development for launching Ho-Chunk Inc. in 1994 to improve opportunities for its people. Ho-Chunk Inc., which owns Indianz.Com, operates separately from the tribal government.

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