Former Crow Creek chairman sentenced to three years in prisonPIERRE — A former Crow Creek Sioux tribal chairman was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday for a scheme in which tribal officials were rewarded for giving contracts to construction companies for buildings at the tribe’s central South Dakota school.
By: CHET BROKAW, The Associated Press
PIERRE — A former Crow Creek Sioux tribal chairman was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday for a scheme in which tribal officials were rewarded for giving contracts to construction companies for buildings at the tribe’s central South Dakota school.
A federal jury in August convicted Duane Big Eagle, 62, on two counts of conspiracy to bribe a tribal official and one count of bribery.
Big Eagle had asked to be sentenced to a year of house arrest, extensive community service and repayment of $21,500 to the tribe, but U.S. District Court Judge Roberto A. Lange said Wednesday that the nature of the crime required that Big Eagle serve time in prison. The judge said he wants to send a message that bribery cannot be tolerated, particularly when it steals money that should have gone to much needed projects and programs on a reservation located on one of the poorest counties in the nation.
“The court wants to appropriately punish Mr. Big Eagle for what has occurred and deter anyone from similar conduct,” Lange said.
The charges relate to tribal officials’ actions in awarding a $3.5 million contract to build a new dorm and kitchen facility after a 2005 fire at the tribal school and later contracts to build housing at the school. Other tribal officials and contractors have already been convicted for their roles in the scheme, which involved contractors giving tribal officials thousands of dollars in bribes in return for receiving contracts.
Big Eagle’s attorney, Dana Hanna of Rapid City, said he expects to appeal the conviction. He has said prosecutors failed to provide reliable evidence that Big Eagle knew any payments were bribes. The main evidence against Big Eagle came from two people previously convicted in the case, and those two admitted they had lied about some aspects of the case, he said.
Big Eagle told the judge Wednesday that he accepted a payment from a contractor, a longtime friend, in 2008 because he understood it was to help him take care of his two grandchildren who had been orphaned after Big Eagle’s son was killed in a traffic accident. He did not talk about other payments involved in the charges against him.
“The bottom line is when you’re broke, you’re broke, and I was broke,” Big Eagle said. “I admit I took the check, and it was wrong. I needed the money to help me with these kids.”
Big Eagle will remain free until Jan. 3, when he will be sent to prison. He also must repay the tribe for $21,500 for the bribes he was convicted of taking.
Big Eagle resigned as the tribe’s top leader following his conviction. He was chairman of the tribe for 13 of the past 19 years, and the chairman and tribal council members also act as the reservation’s school board.
Prosecutors have said that after school buildings burned in 2005, tribal officials would pay contractors, who would then give cash back to the tribal officials. In a 2008 meeting, at a time when Big Eagle was not a tribal official, a contractor wrote a $5,000 check to Big Eagle, who then cashed it and kept $1,000 while giving $1,000 each to four other people, prosecutors said.
Lester Thompson, who was elected tribal chairman in 2006, and Brandon Sazue, who became chairman in 2008, told federal officials about the ongoing bribery, prosecutors said. Big Eagle was tribal chairman before 2006 and then was elected again in 2010.
In Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, 10 people testified to ask the judge to give Big Eagle a lenient sentence, while Thompson and Sazue were among four government witnesses who urged Lange to make Big Eagle serve time in prison.
Big Eagle’s supporters told the judge that they considered him to be an honest man who has always done what he could to help children and those in need. Big Eagle and his wife have been foster parents to about three dozen children over the years, they said.
Wilhelmina Janis said Big Eagle once gave his annual bonus to be distributed to her and other elderly reservation residents so they each could have $40 or $50 to spend for Christmas.
“He’d give you his last dollar. He’s been known to do that for people in their time of need,” Janis said.
But Sazue, the former tribal chairman, said Big Eagle and others took bribes to steal money from students at a time when the money was needed to rebuild school facilities.
“Right is right, and wrong is wrong. Shame on you, Mr. Big Eagle,” Sazue said.
Hanna, the defense attorney, said Big Eagle should get a lenient sentence because he has done much to help poor people and his reservation, including winning congressional approval of a law that gave the tribe $27.5 million to compensate it for land flooded when Missouri River dams were built four decades ago.
He said Big Eagle has saved the lives of four people: pulling one of his daughters from a raging river, dragging a man from a burning mobile home and pulling two unconscious people from a burning car.
Lange said federal sentencing guidelines suggested a sentence of approximately four to five years, but he was imposing a shorter prison term because of Big Eagle’s age, the fact he has no prior convictions, will not be a future danger to society, has cared for many foster children and has a seriously ill wife.