Former Blackfeet operations manager pleads guilty to stealing COVID-19 funds
Former operations manager and public information officer for the Blackfeet Tribe James McNeely pled guilty Wednesday to stealing more than $78,000 in COVID-19 relief funds.
McNeely, 43, pled guilty to theft from an Indian tribal government receiving federal funding and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.
Sentencing was set for June 6 and McNeely’s release was continued pending further proceedings in U.S. District Court of Montana.
While working as the tribe’s operations manager, McNeely fraudulently submitted requests for repayments to the tribe after falsely claiming to buy COVID-19 supplies from Amazon.
However, McNeely never purchased supplies and received checks adding up to $78,415 from about October 2021 until October 2022. The tribe reimbursed McNeely using checks issued from the bank account containing American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The funds were sent in checks and electronic transmissions from Montana to Denver and other places, and into a checking account, as part of McNeely’s scheme to fraudulently obtain the money, the U.S. government alleged.
The checks, sent from February to September of 2022, added up to more than $78,400, according to the indictment; 10 checks were sent, each ranging from $7,100-$8,400.
According to the Cutbank Pioneer Press, McNeely was appointed public information officer for the Blackfeet Tribe in February 2022 after serving as the public information officer for Blackfeet Incident Command during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. He worked at Tribal Headquarters for more than 20 years, according to the Pioneer Press.
Tribes were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing higher mortality rates, according to a 2021 study.