Two former Twin Buttes school board officials plead guilty 4-13-07

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Two former members of the Twin Buttes school board have pleaded guilty to stealing money from the school and have agreed to help an investigation of its finances, authorities said.

Darcy Lone Bear, a former board vice president, pleaded guilty Friday, and former president Melissa Starr pleaded guilty earlier this week in federal court in Bismarck. U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland ordered a presentence investigation for both Starr and Lone Bear, said Clare Hochhalter, an assistant U.S. attorney.

A federal grand jury indicted Starr, Lone Bear and five others from the school last fall on charges they conspired to steal about $665,000 from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation school district from August 2001 until October 2006.

Gov. John Hoeven has suspended Starr, Lone Bear and Hank Starr, another board member, while they await a hearing to remove them from the school board. The Starrs are brother and sister.

Don Canton, a spokesman for Hoeven, said Friday the three had not resigned from the board, and the hearing is still planned.

Hochhalter said Melissa Starr and Lone Bear pleaded guilty to a charge of embezzlement and theft from tribal organizations. In exchange, he said, other charges against them will be dismissed, and their decision to accept responsibility for their actions will be considered when they are sentenced, Hochhalter said.

``The judge will weigh that information along with other information in the presentence report,'' he said. Lone Bear is to be sentenced June 18 and Melissa Starr is to be sentenced July 16, he said.

The former school board members were accused of taking money through travel vouchers for trips and training that never occurred.

Starr was charged with stealing up to $330,000 of the school's money and Lone Bear was charged with stealing $25,000. The charge to which they pleaded guilty carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Hochhalter said Starr will have a chance to justify some of the travel expenses for which she was reimbursed. He said Lone Bear suggested in court that the embezzlement had been going on before he became a board member.

The others charged with conspiring to embezzle, and the amounts they allegedly took, are former board member Tammy Grady Jacobs, $126,000; former principal Elaine Incognito, $67,000; custodian Paul Fredericks, $63,000; board member Hank Starr, $43,000; and school finance officer Lillian Holen, $35,000.

Hochhalter said plea agreements are pending with GradyJacobs and Holen but the terms are sealed. A change of plea hearing for Holen is scheduled next Tuesday.

``We're still in discussions with the others,'' Hochhalter said Friday. ``I think the cooperation of those who entered into agreements and who have pleaded guilty will help us resolve the remaining cases.''

None of the seven officials is still working at the school.