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A lawsuit filed by a tribal business entity against a law firm and one of its shareholders reads like a movie script filled with allegations of putting millions of dollars at risk, inciting threats and intimidation against tribal councilors, a scheme to transfer the company’s assets to another tribe, and even the shooting of two horses on an Indian reservation in northern Montana. 

The lawsuit was filed by Fort Belknap Indian Community Planning and Development Corporation, d/b/a Indian Mountain Development Group (IMDG) on September 11, 2023, in the Great Falls Division in the Montana U.S. District Court alleges Jennifer Weddle, a Colorado-based attorney, and her firm, Greenberg Traurig LLP, played a significant role in the alleged financial mismanagement of the company. 

Weddle, who co-chairs Greenberg Trauig’s American Indian Law Practice, is an award-winning attorney. In some publications, she is listed as a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe; however, the tribe’s enrollment office told Native News Online they do not have anyone with her name listed on tribal rolls. 

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“We are reviewing the allegations in the complaint, which we believe include mischaracterizations and inaccuracies. We intend to defend this lawsuit,” Greenberg Traurig’s Chief Communications Officer Joey L. Kaiser said to Native News Online in a statement sent via email.

The allegations in the lawsuit have led to deep divisions within the community, placing hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars at risk on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. 

The reservation is the homeland of the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) Tribes that together form the Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC).

IMDG had an estimated $130 million in operating revenue three years ago and provided the main source of revenue for Fort Belknap, an impoverished tribal community with high unemployment. 

“Fort Belknap Indian Community has been taken advantage of by interests outside our community who have worked to undermine our sovereign right as a people to govern ourselves,” IMDG said in a news release on September 12, 2023, when it announced the lawsuit “These forces have made millions upon millions of dollars for themselves while too many of our people suffer.”

The lawsuit is based on the actions by Weddle after the Tribal Council replaced members of the IMDG board on January 19, 2023, after members of the Council became increasingly concerned about the expiration of board terms, significant debts IMDG incurred, and lack of information the IMDG board and Weddle, then serving as legal counsel, provided the Tribal Council relating to IMDG’s commercial activities.

Once Weddle became aware the Tribal Council appointed interim IMDG board members and replaced the IMDG CEO, the complaint alleges she told the Tribal Council that it resulted in default and, third-party lenders would seize assets and all business employees would lose their jobs. 

Jeff Stiffarm, one of the plaintiffs of the lawsuit, is the president of FBIC. He told Native News Online in a telephone interview that he became concerned about the fact that the IMDG had not replaced board members whose terms had expired. After repeated attempts to work with the previous chief executive officer to have them replaced and the lack of adequate financial reports, Stiffarm and other Tribal Council members decided to take action into their own hands to replace those board members. 

The complaint says as a result of placing an interim board of IDMG, Tribal Councilmembers were threatened. One meeting became so contentious that Tribal Council members called law enforcement to control the meeting. Tribal Council members discovered threatening notes on their car windshields. A few days later, a Tribal Council member found one of his horses shot. A tribal member came home and discovered one of his horses shot and killed. 

The lawsuit alleges that once the defendants determined that the Tribal Council was not going to back down on their decision to replace the IMDG board, they developed a scheme to convert all of the IMDG’s tribal lending assets, excluding debt. This resulted in the creation of new bank accounts and removal of computer servers and personal records to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, located some 685 miles away in South Dakota.

 

The interim board on March 28, 2023, discovered documents, letters, emails, and text messages from Weddle in which she advised certain members of the previous IMDG board members to sign documents dated January 22, 2023, authorizing the conversion of all of IMDG tribal online lending businesses to Rosebud. 

An attorney at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe told Native News Online last Thursday he had heard about the lawsuit but had not seen it. He was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe but said he had no recollection of a planned transfer of IMDG’s assets to any entity of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. 

The transfer of the IMDG’s assets never occurred.

The lawsuit states Weddle and Greenberg Traurig did not keep contemporaneous billing statements and did not submit timely invoices to IMDG. Despite the fact that there were no invoices submitted during 2022, IMDG paid Weddle and Greenberg Traurig $2,850,000 for the year.

“Because the third-party lenders have declared an event of default, IMDG and its subsidiaries are unable to obtain outside financing to fund existing and new projects. As a result, IMDG and its subsidiaries are suffering negative reputational impact and have lost and will continue to lose revenue. IMDG’s Chief Financial Officer has estimated losses incurred at hundreds of millions of dollars over the next three to five years,” the complaint reads.

In the mid-2000s, Greenberg and Traurig’s lobbyist Jack Abramoff admitted to ripping off some American Indian tribes and was imprisoned. Greenberg and Traurig was not charged in his illegal schemes. Subsequent to then, the law firm made a commitment to maintain high ethical standards. 

The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial, the return of any profits illegally gained by the defendants and awards attorney fees and costs to the plaintiffs.

 

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].