Former Tribe Leader Sentenced On Fraud Charges

Legal counsel planning appeal to higher court

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During the seven months between May and November of 1999, Tonto Apache councilmember Jeri Johnson-DeCola showed up for work every day and cashed every paycheck she was given in return for her labor.

As a result, she became the defendant in the first jury trial to be held in the tribe's 30-year history a trial which ended last week with a guilty verdict.

Each time Johnson-DeCola endorsed one of those 54 paychecks, the jury of non-Tonto Apache Native Americans concluded, she committed fraud.

Wednesday, Judge Tao Eptison handed down the sentence.

Johnson-DeCola a former chair of the Tonto Apache Tribal Council was ordered to pay $55,000 in fines and $8,762 in restitution to the tribe for the salary she received.

The judge suspended jail time on the condition that Johnson-DeCola pay the fines and undergo an alcohol-abuse evaluation.

Johnson-DeCola was also ordered to pay the prosecutorial fees incurred in the case, which during the sentencing hearing were estimated to be $37,832.53.

Eptison scheduled a May 14 hearing to determine the exact amount.

"I am very disappointed with the verdict, of course, because the charges are all untrue," Johnson-DeCola said Thursday. "The tribe's constitutional law was distorted to fit the situation. I am going to appeal this decision to the Indian Southwest Court of Appeals." If she doesn't get any satisfaction there, Johnson-DeCola says she'll take it to the highest court available to her.

"I think it was a very lenient sentence," prosecutor Orville Burshia said by telephone from his San Carlos office. "I understand why the judge did not give the jail time I recommended. From what I'm hearing, Miss Johnson has many good qualities. But those very same qualities convinced me that there was no mistake or inadvertence in the wrongs that she did."

Tonto Apache Tribal Chairperson Vivian Burdette did not return calls to the Roundup.

The three-and-a-half-year tale behind her conviction and sentencing began in November 1998, when Johnson-DeCola was pulled over by a Phoenix police officer and cited for driving under the influence of alcohol a charge for which, in the following month, she was convicted and jailed for one night.

At that time, she was a member of the tribal council, and was therefore required to report the conviction to Tonto Apache gaming officials. To this day, Johnson-DeCola maintains she was unaware of a tribe's constitutional clause that orders any councilmember convicted of any alcohol-related offense in a tribal, federal or state court can be removed from the council.

At a tribal council meeting held in October of 1999, Johnson-DeCola said during the trial, Vivian Burdette confronted Johnson-DeCola about the DUI and told her that she had to either resign or be removed from the council. Johnson-DeCola resigned.

The prosecution's case was based on the facts that Johnson-DeCola failed to tell the tribal council of her DUI conviction and continued to work and be paid as a councilmember. If she had told the council of the DUI when it happened, the prosecution maintained, she would have been forced out of the council or asked to resign, and would not have been able to work and earn income in that capacity.

Therefore, the prosecution's case concluded, Johnson-DeCola defrauded the Tonto Apaches of the salary she had earned between the date of her DUI conviction and her resignation from the council.

Historically, the United States federal government has recognized the inherent sovereignty of Indian nations to "make their own laws and to be ruled by them." According to information provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, most tribes have traditionally resolved disputes and addressed criminal activity by consensus, not by an adversarial system, as do Anglo-Americans.

While each of the more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. possesses traditional methods of dispute resolution, formal court institutions are a relatively recent development on Indian land. In those formal settings, Native American judges like Eptison are free to follow the guidelines of state and federal law or ignore them. Additionally, attorneys who practice within tribal courts are not required to be licensed members of a state bar.

All of the attorneys involved in Johnson-DeCola's case Brushia and assistant prosecutor Randy Lang of San Carlos, and Johnson-DeCola's acting attorney, Payson legal consultant Richard Dugger possess licenses obtained through the San Carlos Indian Reservation which limit their practices to tribal courts.

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