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Cedric Cromwell, far left, is seen in Washington, D.C, on November 13, 2018, prior to a rally at the U.S. Capitol in support of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and its efforts to keep its reservation in trust. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
‘I’m not afraid’: Indicted former Mashpee leader seeks dismissal of charges
Tuesday, February 9, 2021
Indianz.Com

The former chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is speaking out about his criminal corruption case as he seeks to dismiss all of the charges against him.

Cedric Cromwell is being accused of stealing money from his tribe as part of an arrangement with a gaming developer. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, following his arrest and indictment last November.

“I’m fighting with the federal government now, personally,” Cromwell said on Monday on Clubhouse, a new audio-based, social media app that has exploded in popularity in recent weeks.

“I’m not afraid,” Cromwell added.

Following news of the charges, which came a week after the presidential election, Cromwell was removed from his post on the tribal council, where he had served as chairman since 2009. He discussed his situation in a room on Clubhouse that was open to the public.

“I’m off of tribal council right now,” Cromwell told a group of listeners who had gathered to talk about solidarity between people of Native and Black descent.

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Cedric Cromwell is seen in his profile on Clubhouse, an audio-based social media platform. He joined on January 19, 2021, and belongs to two clubs. Information about his followers and the person who nominated him to join the platform has been redacted by Indianz.Com.

But Cromwell indicated that he considers himself a leader among his people, whose reservation in Massachusetts was stripped of its trust status by the Donald Trump administration, just one of many transgressions against Indian Country during the prior presidency. The issue is being litigated in federal court, in a proceeding separate from the criminal case against the former chairman.

“It’s a spiritual capacity,” Cromwell said in describing his place within the tribe, whose ancestors assisted the first European settlers to New England some 400 years ago, not long before their land was eventually taken by those new arrivals.

“I’m sitting in a different kind of capacity,” Cromwell added.

According to his profile on Clubhouse, Cromwell joined the app on January 19. That same day, his attorneys asked a federal judge to dismiss five charges against him.

The defense team followed up last Thursday with another motion to dismiss all of the remaining charges — there are 10 total in the indictment. They said federal prosecutors have failed to make their case against him, arguing that any money Cromwell accepted from the tribe’s gaming partner were campaign contributions — not bribes or extortion payments made in exchange for helping out the developer.

“The indictment at issue here, on its face, fails to charge that Cromwell engaged in any ‘official act,’ or that Mr. Cromwell knew that any payments were made in exchange for ‘officials acts,’” the second motion reads.

“This fact alone warrants dismissal,” the filing states.

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Government attorneys are taking a different view. Although the indictment was filed during the prior administration, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts have continued to press the case against Cromwell and his co-defendant, David DeQuattro, a non-Indian developer who landed a lucrative contract with the tribe to build a casino on the reservation.

“The defendants argue that the indictment fails to allege a quid pro quo,” U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling wrote of the alleged corruption scheme. “They are wrong.”

“The quid was the stream of payments and in-kind benefits provided by DeQuattro, and the quo was Cromwell’s agreement to use his influence as chairman of the tribe and president of the gaming authority’s board of directors to ensure that the board did not terminate the contract,” wrote Lelling, who was nominated to his position by Trump.

Democrat Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, a day after the first motion to dismiss was filed in the case. He has since asked Lelling and other U.S. Attorneys who were holdovers from the Trump era to step down.

There is no indication the charges against Cromwell or DeQuattro will be dropped by the new Biden administration. Attorneys for the pair and for the federal government have agreed to stop the clock on the two co-defendants’ right to a speedy trial. The clock has been extended through April 5.

But Cromwell’s fortunes could definitely have shifted with Biden in the White House. Before he was indicted, he was actively seeking a prominent job at the Department of the Interior, the federal agency with the most trust and treaty responsibilities in Indian Country.

According to people close to the new administration, Cromwell wanted to be nominated as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a position that oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, as well as a recently-created entity called the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration.

The tribe’s future is also tied to the change in power in the nation’s capital. In his Plan for Tribal Nations, Biden slammed the Republican Trump administration for trying to “take away [land] from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.”

“As President, Biden will uphold trust and treaty responsibilities and continue to place land into trust for Indian tribes,” the plan, which was released a month before the November 2020 election, stated.

Cromwell too was an outspoken critic of the prior president. He noted that Trump used social media to stir up Republican opposition to the tribe and its efforts to keep the reservation in Massachusetts in trust.

“Trump had been tweeting about my tribe,” Cromwell said during a forum that took place only two days before the indictment against him was made public. “Very negative things.”

Trump’s Twitter account has since been suspended by the social media company, following the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The one-term former president urged his supporters to “fight” for him, falsely suggesting that their efforts could overturn the results of the election that he lost.

But long before that, Trump repeatedly employed anti-Indian language on his Twitter account in hopes of derailing the tribe. The racist tactics worked — in May 2019, Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives voted against a bill that would have protected the reservation from being taken out of just. The measure never came up for consideration in the U.S. Senate, which was in control of the GOP at the time.

“Please remind yourself that we have much to be grateful for, that we love one another and that our business will be be looked after as it always has been and that as WE look forward to an upcoming tribal election and more prosperous and peaceful era being ushered in with the changing of US President and administration, Mashpee will remain,” Vice Chairwoman Jessie Baird, who is the highest-ranking leader on the tribal council following Cromwell’s ouster, said in a message last November.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe: Thanksgiving

According to the 23-page indictment in the criminal case, Cromwell accepted bribes in connection with the development of the stalled First Light Resort and Casino. He was allegedly given nearly $58,000 in payments and other items of value by DeQuattro between July 2014 and May 2017.

The majority of the payments given to Cromwell were in the form of $10,000 checks, the indictment reads. He was given a total of five checks during the period in question, totaling $50,000, the indictment states.

Cromwell also accepted gym equipment, which was delivered to his home in 2016, and a hotel suite in Boston the following year, according to the charges. Federal prosecutors allege the former chairman wanted the room to celebrate his birthday.

The tribe broke ground on the casino resort after the site in Taunton, Massachusetts, was placed in trust and declared a reservation during the Barack Obama years. Litigation filed by non-Indians opponents of the project resulted in the Trump administration concluding that the land should have never been acquired, an issue still in contention in court. The reservation, which also includes land in Mashpee, the location of tribal headquarters, remains in trust due to numerous missteps by the Trump team.

In light of the missteps, a federal judge has ordered the BIA to deliver a new decision on the tribe’s land-into-trust application, which was first submitted in August 2007. The outcome is in the hands of the Biden administration.

Prior to Mashpee, the federal government had never attempted to take a reservation out of trust since the disastrous termination era of Indian policy of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, in which the U.S. sought to disclaim its trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations. Congress repudiated termination in the 1970s, adopting a policy of self-determination and greater recognition of tribal self-governance and tribal sovereignty.

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Leader of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe indicted on federal charges (November 13, 2020)