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In less than four years, dozens of people, including tribal employees, tribal executives and out-of-state business owners, have stolen millions of dollars from Native American nations and organizations in South Dakota. 

They're caught by whistleblowers or local law enforcement, investigated by federal law enforcement, and then prosecuted by the U.S. Attorneys Office in South Dakota through the Guardians Project, which brings multiple federal agencies together to fight corruption and financial crimes against Native communities, and encourages citizens to report such activity. 

South Dakota launched the project in December 2015 after it began in 2011 in Montana.

So far, the South Dakota project has investigated 60 cases, charged 53 people or organizations and landed 42 convictions, according to Aileen Crawford, spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorneys Office in South Dakota. Taken together, the cases involve stealing millions of dollars from all nine reservations across the state. 

People and organizations have been charged with "myriad federal offenses," Crawford said. They include wire, mail and bank fraud, theft and embezzlement from tribes and tribal organizations such as casinos, and larceny. 

The most recent indictments were March 12, according to press releases from the U.S. Attorneys Office in South Dakota. A former cashier at the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Bingo Operations was charged with embezzlement and larceny after being accused of stealing more than $1,000 from the business, while a former employee of a casino owned by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is accused of stealing more than $1,000 from the casino.

Others charged through the Guardians Project have had leadership positions within tribes. Five executives of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe pleaded guilty to embezzlement after stealing $81,542.50 from the tribe. Another former executive was sentenced to 16 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $100,000 in restitution to the tribe. A former court administrator with the Crow Creek Tribe went through a diversion program and and paid $2,900 in restitution after being charged with embezzlement, and a former director of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's ranch was ordered to serve 18 months probation and pay about $10,000 in restitution after stealing from the ranch.

The program has also targeted outsiders who scam tribes. An Idaho man and his company pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy for stealing $54,000 from the Oglala Sioux Tribe by defrauding an employee at Oglala Lakota College.

The U.S. Attorney's Office learns about possible Project Guardians cases when someone calls 911 just "like any other criminal case," Crawford said. "On a weekly basis, this office and the participating agencies learn about cases from whistleblowers, through concerned citizens and by leaders reporting misconduct taking place in tribal entities."

But the U.S. Attorney's Office also does special outreach, Crawford said.

"Working to enhance communication between that of the public and citizens and that of this office and the federal investigating agencies is a big piece of the project's success," she said.

Crawford said staff visit reservations, reach out to tribal governments, and create press releases so citizens know they can report possible criminal activity to their local law enforcement or a federal agency.

For more information about the Guardians Project, call the U.S. Attorney's Office at 605-330-4400.

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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