The former executive director of Montana Native Women’s Coalition on Friday pleaded guilty to theft of federal funds.

On Feb. 5, 44-year-old Sheryl Lynn Lawrence of Colstrip admitted to stealing federal money in a false claim she made to the organization while serving as executive director in November 2017. 

The Montana Native Women’s Coalition administers state and federal funding for domestic violence and programming for Native women. The Coalition receives funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), which provides grants for victim services.

According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice, Lawrence claimed more money on a travel advance for a work trip to Las Vegas than was necessary, and spent the balance on her personal expenses throughout her trip.

Lawrence told the company that she drove from Montana to Las Vegas, and claimed $1,826 in gas money –– an amount that exceeded what the cost of a flight would have been, and according to the press release, “was never approved by the OVW, nor would it ever have been approved.”

Lawrence faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release. Sentencing is set for June 3.

“Lawrence's actions intentionally deprived OVW from using the federal funds for their intended purpose to help Native American victims of domestic and sexual violence,” the release states. 

Lawrence stepped down from her position as executive director in December 2017, Montana Native Women’s Coalition’s current director, Jean Bearcrane, told Native News Online.

Two other defendants in the case, Barbara Mary Daychief of Browning and Meredith McConnell of Colstrip, were board members for the organization at the time, she said.

Daychief pleaded guilty to theft of federal funds on Jan. 22, and McConnell pleaded not guilty to charges.

As a result of the charges, Bearcrane said the coalition has been working with OVW to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

“The coalition is finalizing policies that will have much more secure checks and balances… in financial policies,” Bearcrane said. “We talked to OVW yesterday so they’re ready to review them.”

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About The Author
Author: Jenna Kunze
Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Kunze’s bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 U.S. journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the Alaskan Arctic region. Prior to that, she served as lead reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.