Former tribal leader gets jail

Posted April 24, 2009, at 8:40 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A federal judge Friday sentenced the former governor of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township to five years in prison, rejecting a recommendation from prosecutors that Robert L. Newell serve three times that much time behind bars.

Newell, 65, of Indian Township remains free on bail until May 27, when he must report to a federal prison to be determined by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

U.S District Judge Z. George Singal also sentenced the former tribal governor to three years of supervised release after he completes his sentence and ordered him to pay $1.74 million in restitution. Newell was convicted at the end of a three-week jury trial in November of 29 counts of conspiracy and misapplication of tribal and federal funds while he was governor from 2002 to 2006.

In fashioning the sentence, Singal went outside the federal sentencing guidelines that called for Newell to serve between 12½ and 15½ years in federal prison. The sentencing guidelines are advisory, but federal judges in Maine rarely deviate from them.

“Several individuals have indicated that whatever Mr. Newell did had been done before [by other tribal governors],” Singal said in imposing the sentence at the end of the 2¾-hour hearing.

“When anyone asked for assistance, he made sure that it was available. Yet in doing that, Mr. Newell abused a position of trust,” Singal said.

“People in public office,” the judge continued, “have a special burden to make sure that their feelings don’t outweigh the law. Perhaps this was forgotten by Mr. Newell and those before him.”

Singal also said that the recommended sentence under the guidelines was too severe. He found that five years was enough time to punish Newell and to send a message to the community that similar behavior would be prosecuted.

An emotional Newell told the judge that he never intended to steal or cheat. He outlined his history of service to the tribe and named close relatives who had served in tribal government before him.

“My lineage is very sacred to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t do anything to disgrace it. My goal and mission was to make the tribe self-sufficient.”

About 30 family members and supporters sat behind Newell. Seven of them addressed the judge and urged leniency.

None of the 60 people Singal determined to be the victims of Newell’s crimes spoke at the sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Chapman Jr., who prosecuted the case, argued that Newell “corruptly used his power as governor to divert restricted federal funds for the tribe,” paid honoraria to himself and others and doled out millions of dollars in general assistance to the tribal members who were “beholden to his wishes.”

Newell, Chapman said, ruined the tribe’s financial condition, destroyed important programs and jeopardized the tribe’s ability to continue receiving federal funds and grants. His actions, the prosecutor said in his sentencing memorandum, “reinforced a negative stereotype held by some in Washington County concerning the tribe and its members” and set back years of progress the tribe had made toward self-governance and self-determination.

Defense attorney Matthew Erickson of Brewer urged the judge to consider Newell’s age, health, the details of which were not disclosed in court, and the fact that he and his wife are raising two young grandchildren in fashioning a sentence that was far less severe than prosecutors recommended.

“Many of Mr. Newell’s problems stem from his mistaken belief that, as chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, his role as both the chief executive and his expanded role as the father of the tribe gave him the power to administer the federal money as he saw fit, so long as the tribal council members approved,” Erickson wrote in his sentencing memorandum.

Chapman said after the sentencing that he was disappointed in the sentence. He also said that his office has had phone calls from Western tribes about investigating and prosecuting similar cases of suspected fraud.

Newell’s co-defendant, James J. Parisi Jr., 45, of Portland, is scheduled to be sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court in Bangor.

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

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