Deliberation to begin on former tribal governor

Posted Nov. 17, 2008, at 7:51 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The jury is expected to begin deliberations today in the federal trial of a former Indian Township Passamaquoddy tribal governor and the tribe’s ex-business manager accused of misusing $1.7 million in federal funds between Oct. 1, 2002, and Sept. 30, 2006.

Robert L. Newell, 65, of Indian Township took the stand in his own defense Monday in U.S. District Court. He testified that it was not his intent to break the law when he moved money from one tribal account to another to pay bills. Newell denied conspiring with former business manager James J. Parisi Jr., 45, of Portland, in an effort to use tribal money illegally.

Parisi did not take the stand.

Newell admitted that he moved or approved having money moved from one account to another to meet tribal expenses. He told the jury that his goal as governor was to lower the unemployment rate on the reservation that averaged between 30 percent and 60 percent, depending on the time of year and economic conditions.

To support that effort, he said he started a workfare program on the reservation that required able-bodied tribal members to work in exchange for General Assistance. Jobs ranged from mowing lawns and shoveling snow for elders to driving tribal members to methadone clinics for treatment, he testified.

“I wanted people to feel better about themselves, rather than that they were getting something for nothing,” he said of the program.

Much of the money spent from accounts prosecutors have claimed were earmarked for specific purposes, such as housing, drug education and AIDS prevention, was used to pay for General Assistance for tribal members, Newell testified. He also denied that he showed favoritism to family members.

He said that during his tenure as governor, many on the reservation were addicted to opiates, including one of his sons. Newell would give addicts who went into treatment money for groceries, utilities, child care, transportation and lodging expenses so tribal members could seek treatment from a methadone clinic in Portland before a clinic opened in Calais.

Under cross-examination, Newell denied that the tribe’s outside auditor told him not to take money from one account to pay expenses in another, unless the money could be reimbursed in three days to a week. He also denied trying to buy votes by handing out general assistance.

“I didn’t do it to be popular,” he said. “I did it to help those people.”

The former governor testified that he, not Parisi, made decisions about how money would be moved from one account to another. Newell said that Parisi sometimes made transfers under his instructions.

Newell, who most recently served as tribal governor at Indian Township from 2002 to 2006, and Parisi, who served as the tribe’s finance director from 2003 to 2006, were indicted on March 19, 2008, by a federal grand jury on 30 charges after a nearly two-year-long investigation. Their trial began Monday, Nov. 3, and has focused on hundreds of documents entered into evidence

If convicted, each man faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the more serious charges of misapplication of tribal government funds and misapplication of health care funds. They also could be ordered to pay nearly $2 million in restitution to six federal agencies or departments.

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