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Judge denies dismissal of charges against Omaha Tribe officials

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OMAHA | A federal judge has denied a motion to dismiss charges against nine current and former Omaha Tribal Council members accused of misusing federal funds by awarding nearly $389,000 in bonuses to themselves.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Nelson determined that the federal government had the authority and jurisdiction to prosecute the case. Tribal members had argued that the case fell outside federal government oversight, making the case an internal tribal matter to be settled by the Omaha Tribal Court.

"... because the indictment sufficiently describes violations of (federal code sections), and conspiracy to violate those provisions, this court has subject matter jurisdiction over instant prosecution," Nelson wrote in his ruling, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Omaha.

Nelson also rejected the tribal members' arguments that the charges filed were repetitious and charged them with the same crime in separate counts.

A federal indictment filed in September 2016 charged former tribal council treasurer Jessica Webster-Valentino, former council secretary Jeff Miller, council member Rodney Morris and former council members Mitchell Parker, Doran Morris Jr., Forrest Aldrich, Amen Sheridan and Tillie Aldrich and former tribal employee Barbara Freemont with conspiracy, conversion and misapplication of funds from a program receiving federal funds.

All nine have pleaded not guilty. Webster-Valentino, Miller and Rodney Morris remain on the council, though none of them are officers.

In a separate ruling Wednesday, Nelson ruled that Webster-Valentino and Fremont will stand trial separately because they are charged in a separate conspiracy from the other seven.

The indictment, the result of a state and federal investigation, alleges that the nine granted themselves $388,972 in incentive payments from Indian Health Service funds meant to provide health care to tribal members through the Carl T. Curtis Health Education Center.

A defense attorney had argued in the motion to dismiss that the Omaha Tribe was a party in the settlement of a class-action lawsuit in which the Omahas and other tribes had sued the IHS for underpayments. After the Omaha Tribe was notified in November 2012 that it would receive $8.9 million in the settlement, the tribal council voted to pay the bonuses to themselves and other tribal officials for their work related to the lawsuit.

The bonuses were paid out of the settlement funds, their attorney said, giving the council discretion on how the money could be spent.

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