Leech Lake candidates contest election results, accuse council members of embezzlement
On June 9, the day after the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe general election, the four election officials certified the results.
Michael Bongo won re-election as secretary-treasurer with 1,300 votes; Robbie Howe-Bebeau won re-election as District 1 Representative with 303 votes; and Steven White won the seat for District II Representative with 237 votes.
On June 15, unsuccessful candidates Donald Headbird and Deborah Tibbetts submitted notice of contest regarding the results. They based their contest on a series of allegations against Bongo, Howe-Bebeau and incumbent District II Representative Lyman Losh, claiming the three Tribal Council members had bought votes with embezzled tribal funds.
Headbird had earned in the June 8 election 1,202 votes, to lose to Bongo, and Tibbetts earned 190 votes to lose to White, who is Losh's son-in-law.
A hearing in Leech Lake Tribal Court will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 24, before Judge Heidi Drobnick to decide the contested results. Leech Lake Tribal Attorney Frank Bibeau said the election officials would be among the witnesses at the hearing.
The complaints Tibbetts and Headbird put forward include allegations that:
- Bongo, Howe-Bebeau and Losh signed for gasoline vouchers, utility payments and loans from Tribal Gaming revenues.
- Discrepancy between the numbers of absentee votes declared at the official counting site and the final printed vote tally.
- Nonresident voters allowed to vote at precinct polls.
- Electioneering by Bongo's sister inside the 200-foot perimeter of the polls in Cass Lake on election day.
- Non-Leech Lake members casting ballots.
- Absentee ballots sent with campaign literature supporting candidates.
Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Arthur "Archie" LaRose said if the judge finds in favor of Tibbetts and Headbird a new special election would have to be held. Meanwhile, Bongo, Losh and Howe-Bebeau are continuing their duties on the Tribal Council. If the election results are upheld, Bongo and Howe-Bebeau would be sworn in, along with White, at the quarterly Leech Lake Tribal Council meeting in July. Losh did not run for re-election.
However, LaRose wrote a letter dated Monday, June 21, to officials in Washington and St. Paul expressing concern about the possibilities of election tampering and now witness tampering in relation to Thursday's hearing. He said he thinks the meeting between Leif Rasmussen, attorney for the Leech Lake Election Board, and Losh, Bongo and Howe-Bebeau was illegal.
"Moreover, the same three accused officials make the secret deal to hire attorneys with more tribal funds, without any notice to me as Chairman or District III (Representative Eugene) Whitebird for an official and open meeting of all the elected Tribal Council members to participate," he wrote in the letter.
LaRose addressed the letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Investigator Lynn Gannon of the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Gaming Commission Regional Director John Guerber, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Chris Herren, DOJ Civil Rights Division Acting Principal Deputy Chief Rebecca Wertz and Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones.
LaRose wrote that "As part of their supporting evidence, Headbird and Tibbetts have provided internal accounting documentation showing that thousands of tribal dollars in gasoline was given out to many voters by the three incumbent candidates on election day and the day before the election. Additional and larger voucher payments (were made) for personal favors like reinstatement of driver's license fees of $680, mortgage payments, fines, rent, car insurance and more."
Tibbetts noted in her contest that tribal offices were closed on election day, but gas vouchers were issued and redeemed June 8.
LaRose continued in his letter to the officials: "I am uncertain how much has been misapplied, but our annual budget has a deficit of almost $2M, which in large part is a result of recent campaign spending."
LaRose said he plans to meet with federal investigators this week "in hopes of a prompt investigation to prevent any further financial losses or destruction of records."