Brandon Sazue, a former chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe was charged last week in federal court in Pierre with embezzling — with four other tribal leaders charged last month — from the tribe.
Sazue, who is 45 and lives in Chamberlain, appeared Friday, Aug. 9, in court and pleaded not guilty to the grand jury’s indictment handed down Aug. 6, according to U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons.
Sazue has served several two-year terms as chairman of the Crow Creek tribe based in Fort Thompson, including his last election in 2016 when he succeeded his aunt, Roxanne Sazue, who did not run for reelection. She was in the same courtroom in Pierre on July 12 with three other tribal leaders — former council member and current treasurer on leave, Roland Hawk Sr., Francine Maria Middletent and Jaquelyn Pease — facing the same charges.
Parsons says the four embezzled and spent money from the tribe from March 2014, or earlier, until February 2019.
If convicted, the each could face 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of probation.
During the time of the alleged thefts, Brandon Sazue was tribal chairman, or Roxanne Sazue was; Hawk served as tribal treasurer and Middletent was on the tribal council. The three women also worked for Hawk in the tribe’s finance office and all four had access to funds embezzled from the tribe, Parsons said.
Hawk, who is facing separate charges of sexual assault against teenage girls, remains in federal custody in the Hughes County Jail in Pierre, a jail official said.
The other four were released on bond. A trial date for all five has been set for Sept. 10.
The case is part of the “Guardians Project,” involving many agencies aimed at promoting “citizen disclosure of public corruption,” involving federal program funds, contracts and grants, according to Parsons.
Embezzlement is not new at the Crow Creek reservation.
Several tribal members said it continues to be widespread.
This is not the first time for Middletent: In September 1994, when she was 31, she pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzling more than $50,000 from the Crow Creek tribe’s liquor store in Fort Thompson while she worked in the financial office of the tribe, according to news reports and federal court documents.
In December 2018 in a case also part of the Guardians Project, Lana Steele, then 53 and the former tribal financial officer, was sentenced to four years probation and $11,500 restitution for embezzlement from the tribe.
In September 2017, Tally Colombe, then 42, was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for embezzling from a tribal investment fund she ran and using a tribal credit card to buy herself things.
A federal prosecutor said Colombe’s thefts led to the investment fund going down the tubes owing $550,000.
Then-Chairman Brandon Sazue was in court in Pierre for Colombe’s sentencing in 2017 and said she should have gotten a stiffer sentence.
“To be honest, justice wasn’t served,” he said. “The sentence should have been longer. We need to send a message and the message is not a slap on the wrist for all the things that were done.”
Last month, current Tribal Chairman Lester Thompson Jr. said the tribal government is in financial distress and may have to lay off employees in the wake of the embezzlement scandal.
“There is a financial shortfall,” Thompson said. “Actions have been taken to address the shortfall. Some of these actions are going to be — hopefully short-term — layoffs.”
In 2010, three Crow Creek Sioux Tribe officials and a Fort Pierre contractor pleaded guilty to federal charges related to a bribery and retaliation case on the reservation.