GREAT FALLS — Two former officials with the Montana Native Women’s Coalition were sentenced to probationary terms and ordered to pay restitution after both admitted stealing federal grant funds for unapproved spending, including travel to Las Vegas, Nevada, Acting U.S. Attorney Leif M. Johnson said in a news release on Thursday.
Sheryl Lynn Lawrence of Colstrip, 45 years old, who was the Coalition’s executive director, was sentenced in federal court to three years of probation and ordered to pay $35,127 restitution jointly and severally with co-defendant Meredith McConnell of Lame Deer, the Coalition’s former chairwoman. Lawrence pleaded guilty on Febuary 4 to theft of federal funds.
McConnell, 51 years old, was convicted on April 2 in a federal jury trial of crimes related to the unauthorized spending of grant funding and is pending sentencing.
Co-defendant Barbara Mary Daychief of Browning, 45 years old,who was the Coalition’s board treasurer, was sentenced on June 17 to two years of probation and ordered to be solely liable for $2,973 restitution. Daychief pleaded guilty on Jan. 22 to theft of federal funds.
In court documents filed in the case, the government said that the purpose of the Lame Deer-based Coalition is to help Native American victims of domestic and sexual violence. The Coalition receives funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), which provides grants for victim services.
The government alleged that while serving as the Coalition’s executive director, Lawrence received a travel advance in November 2017. Lawrence claimed $1,826 in travel money for a trip to Las Vegas. Lawrence claimed she drove, which provided more money due to payment for mileage, when in fact, Lawrence flew, which cost significantly less money. Lawrence spent money on a trip to Las Vegas, which was never approved by the OVW, nor would it ever have been approved.
The government also alleged that while serving on the board, Daychief received travel advances for travel to various locations. In November 2017, Daychief claimed $1,874 in travel money for a trip to Las Vegas. Although initially intending to travel to the claimed destinations, Daychief ultimately did not travel as planned. Rather than pay back the travel advances as required, Daychief kept the money for herself. When interviewed by law enforcement, Daychief admitted she obtained travel advances despite not traveling as claimed.
The government further alleged the thefts occurred four months after board officials, including Daychief, participated in training about conflicts of interest, whistleblower policies, ethics and financial oversight. The training came after the Coalition’s previous executive director pleaded guilty to fraud in March 2017 for stealing from the organization.
“As executive director and board treasurer, Lawrence and Daychief held trusted positions within the Coalition. By stealing the Coalition’s federal grant money to spend for their own benefit, Lawrence and Daychief prevented the money from being used as intended -- helping Native American victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Our office will prosecute and hold accountable those who misuse grant funding,” Acting U.S. Attorney Johnson said.
“The money that Lawrence and Daychief stole was intended to help Native American victims of domestic and sexual violence. The Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General will continue to root out these schemes, to help ensure that victims of crime are given the help that they need,” said Douglas B. Bruce, Special Agent in Charge of the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General Denver Field Office.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters presided. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ryan Weldon and Bryan Dake prosecuted the case, which was investigated by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General.
(JANUARY 30, 2020) The executive director of the Montana Native Women’s Coalition, along with two board officials, were charged in federal court in Billings on Thursday for an alleged scheme to steal federal grant money to make unapproved trips to Las Vegas and to receive other unauthorized benefits.
U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme said in a press release that all three pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan. The women are Sheryl Lynn Lawrence of Colstrip, 43 years old; Meredith McConnell of Busby, 50; and Barbara Mary Daychief of Browning, 43. All three were released pending further proceedings.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Lawrence, who was the executive director of the Coalition, was charged as a new co-defendant in the superseding indictment. Lawrence is charged with four counts, including theft from a program receiving federal funding, wire fraud, false claims act and misprision of a felony.
McConnell, who was the Coalition’s chairwoman and executive director for Healing Hearts, and Daychief, who was the Coalition’s treasurer and a board member, were charged in the initial indictment.
McConnell is charged with four counts, including theft from a program receiving federal funding, wire fraud, false claims act and misprision of a felony.
Daychief is charged with six counts, including theft from a program receiving federal funding, wire fraud, three counts of false claim act and misprision of a felony.
The indictment accuses the three defendants of stealing from the Lame Deer-based coalition from about August 2017 until March 2018. The Coalition’s purpose is to help Native American victims of domestic and sexual violence. In addition, the Coalition brings together Native American leaders and state representatives who administer state and federal funds for domestic violence and programming to improve resources for Native women and tribal programs.
The Coalition receives funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, which provides grants for victim services. From October 2017 to September 2018, the OVAW awarded the Coalition $318,008 in federal funds.
In March 2017, the Coalition’s previous executive director, Toni Louise Plummer-Alvernaz, pleaded guilty to fraud for stealing from the Coalition. Plummer-Alvernaz was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison and ordered to pay $246,024 restitution.
Two months later, the First Nations Development Institute held a two-day training for the Coalition in Billings, where it taught board members, including McConnell and Daychief, about conflicts of interest, whistleblower policies, code of ethics and financial oversight. The Coalition also received a special condition about reporting fraud in its September 2017 award package.
The indictment alleges Lawrence, McConnell and Daychief committed travel fraud, received travel payments on non-approved trips, including to Las Vegas, received and authorized double-payment for “days in service,” authorized unapproved construction projects and took other benefits they were not entitled to receive.
If convicted of the most serious crime, each woman faces up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release.