BANGOR, Maine — The governor of the Indian Township Passamaquoddy Tribe testified against his predecessor in U.S. District Court on Monday as the jury trial of Robert L. Newell and the tribe’s ex-business manager began.
Gov. William Nicholas said that Newell’s spending had put the tribe more than $1.6 million over budget in May 2004, eight months into the tribe’s fiscal year. The head of the current tribal government said Newell kept the tribal council in the dark about how he had moved money from one account to another and about the extent of the tribe’s financial situation.
The governor of Indian Township was the first of 70 potential prosecution witnesses to testify against Newell, 64, of Princeton and James J. Parisi Jr. 45, of Portland, the tribe’s former business manager. The two are charged with misusing more than $1.7 million in federal and tribal funds between Oct. 1, 2002, and Sept. 30, 2006 — Newell’s term as governor — and lying about it to investigators.
The jury trial, overseen by U.S. District Judge George Singal, is scheduled to last about three weeks. It is expected to include a lot of documents, both sides in their opening statements told the jury of four men and a dozen women, including four alternate jurors.
“This case is all about following the money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Chapman said. “The tribe received federal funds that all had certain conditions about how they had to be used. Governor Newell and Mr. Parisi violated the law when they didn’t comply with those contracts, and then they made false statements” to investigators.
Newell’s court-appointed attorney, Matthew Erickson of Brewer, told the jury that it was not enough that the prosecution show that his client moved money from one account to another. It also has to prove that it was Newell’s intent to commit a crime, he said.
“It’s not about whether he was robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Erickson said. “When you hear from my client, it will become clear that he is no Donald Trump or Lee Iacocca or Mitt Romney. … It’s not clear how Bobby Newell benefited from all this.”
George “Toby” Dilworth, Parisi’s Portland defense attorney, told the jury that his client met Newell through Parisi’s neighbor Craig Francis, who was the tribe’s attorney. Dilworth said Parisi’s background was in banking and that he had no experience in accounting or auditing or overseeing programs funded by the federal government, as is much of the tribe’s operation.
“Jim Parisi was always a little bit of an outsider,” Dilworth said. “He was not a member of the tribe and not related to members of the tribe. You will hear about some strong alliances and bitter feuds at Indian Township. Jim Parisi was caught in the crossfire. He was not Bobby Newell’s Siamese twin. Their roles and conduct were different.”
Nicholas, who served as chief warden and as a member of the tribal council during Newell’s tenure as governor, testified Monday that most of the over-spending appeared to have been in the general assistance account, which is nearly identical to general assistance programs run by municipalities.
Cash can be issued from the fund to meet emergency needs for food, fuel, clothing and housing. Information about how tribal members qualified for general assistance was not presented Monday.
“Traditionally,” Erickson said in his opening statement, “the chief is the person members of the tribe go to if they are hungry and have no food. That hasn’t changed.”
Cross-examination of Nicholas is scheduled to resume today. Ben Picotte of the Bureau of Indian Affairs also is scheduled to take the stand.