May 26, 2018
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Ex-tribal governor’s case goes to jury

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Defense attorneys told jurors in closing arguments Tuesday that finding a former governor of the Indian Township Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe and the tribe’s ex-business manager guilty of misusing funds boils down to whether the two intended to defraud the government or considered transfers of money from one account to another as loans.

The trial of Robert L Newell, 65, of Indian Township and James J. Parisi Jr., 45, of Portland on multiple charges — including conspiracy, misapplication of government funds and falsifying documents — wound down Tuesday afternoon. The jury deliberated for two hours before going home for the night at 6 p.m.

Jurors are scheduled to resume deliberations today and continue sorting through thousands of pages of documents submitted as evidence in the 11-day trial.

The prosecutor urged them to carefully consider the documents that have been submitted in the case and to follow the money.

“Robert Newell told the tribal council that as long as there was a federal government, Indian Township would never run out of money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Chapman Jr. told the jury in his closing argument.

“He treated restricted federal funds as if it was a big pot of money to benefit himself, his family, his friends and tribal council members. The more cash he handed out, the more political power he would have.”

Newell’s attorney, Matthew Erickson of Brewer, urged jurors to ask themselves if at the time the alleged misapplication of funds took place, Newell believed that what he was doing wasn’t improper or illegal.

“If he had that good-faith belief at that time, it would negate the willful or knowing conduct you would have to find [he had in order] to convict,” the attorney said.

Erickson also asked the jury to keep in mind the prevailing conditions in Indian Township while Newell was governor, including an unemployment rate of between 30 percent and 60 percent and a soaring opiate addiction problem.

“It’s important to keep in mind what he was faced with,” the attorney said, “and to ask yourself, ‘Was this a reasonable response?’”

George “Toby” Dilworth, Parisi’s Portland attorney, told jurors that although his client had the title of finance director, he had very little authority. Parisi could not transfer funds without Newell’s approval, and at least four of the employees he supervised earned more money than he did, the attorney said.

“As Mr. Chapman asked you to do, I, too, urge you to follow the money,” Dilworth said, “because it went nowhere near Jim Parisi. He got nothing more than what he earned.”

In written instructions that he read to jurors, Singal told them that to find the defendants guilty of conspiracy, they must find beyond a reasonable doubt that their intent was to agree to commit a crime. The judge also said that the defendants’ intent could be inferred by the circumstances surrounding the alleged crime.

To find Newell and Parisi guilty of misapplication of funds, Singal said, prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt all of these issues were true:

— That the defendants were agents of an Indian tribal government.

— That the Indian tribal government received $10,000 or more in federal money in one year.

— That the defendants misapplied those funds.

— That the amount misapplied exceeded $5,000.

— That the defendants intentionally misapplied those funds.

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 by a federal grand jury on 30 charges after a nearly two-year investigation.

Their trial, which began Nov. 3, has focused on thousands of documents from bank records to internal tribal papers to contracts the tribe had with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other government agencies.

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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