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Kansas ‘tribe’ accused of selling memberships to immigrants

By Roxana Hegeman
Wichita, Kansas (AP) 9-07

A group that claims to be an American tribe has been indicted for selling memberships to immigrants who were told they would become U.S. citizens, federal prosecutors said September 19th.

Eleven employees of the Kaweah Indian Nation also were accused in the indictment, which was returned under seal September 17th. The man who claims to be the tribe’s chief was arrested in the case earlier this month and the group’s offices were raided.

At a hearing Septe,ber 19th, the group’s leader, Malcolm L. Webber, was allowed to post a $50,000 bond for his release on September 22nd with electronic monitoring. In what the judge acknowledged was a rare move, he also required as a condition of release that Webber direct all solicitations for tribal membership to cease and to direct all his tribal police units to disband.

Six of the other defendants made their first court appearances September 26th, and all but one, an illegal immigrant, was released on their own recognizance bonds. Two had been arrested last month, and two others remain at large.

Prosecutors contend the Kaweah Nation marketed memberships to legal and illegal immigrants by saying the documents conferred U.S. citizenship and would allow immigrants to obtain other documents and benefits, including Social Security cards.

“Of course, citizenship cannot be obtained in that manner,” U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren said at a news conference.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled in 1984 that the Kaweah group had no historical link to tribes, and said Webber is not an Indian.

“The Kaweah Nation is an invention of Mr. Webber. It is not a recognized Indian tribe,” Melgren said.

The Kaweah group is charged with nine counts, including harboring illegal aliens, possession of false documents with intent to defraud the United States, conspiracy and producing false identification documents.

The indictment adds to and replaces earlier charges against Webber, 69, of Bel Aire. He is accused of harboring illegal immigrants, possession of false documents with intent to defraud the United States, conspiracy, mail fraud and producing false identification documents.

Webber’s lawyer, Kurt Kerns, has said that Webber is a victim of renegade underlings who sold tribal memberships to immigrants and pocketed the money.

Kerns said at /september 19th hearing that the government’s arrests September 19th of the employees were meant to scare and intimidate them and turn everybody against each other.

Defense attorney Steven Joseph, who represents Raynal N. Williams, Webber’s stepdaughter and one of the defendants in the case, declined to comment before her hearing. He said her family did not know why she was arrested and taken into custody.

Others named in the indictment were Debra J. Flynn, 49, of Wichita; Chuck Flynn, 52, of Wichita; Jorge B. Villareal, a citizen of Mexico who lives in Bellflower, Calif.; Eduviges Del Carmen-Zamora, 44, of Wichita and a native of El Salvador; Angel O. Zamora, 39, a citizen of Guatemala; Britton A. Bergman, 35, of Wichita; Hector Nolasco Pena, 50, a citizen of Honduras who lives in Oklahoma City; Victor W. Orvellana, a citizen of Mexico who lives in Long Beach, Calif.; Jamie Cervantes, 45, a citizen of Mexico living in Wichita. All of them are employees of the tribe, according to prosecutors.

The other defendants couldn’t be reached for comment or declined to comment.

Of the charges in the indictment, mail fraud carries the most severe penalty, up to 20 years in prison. Possessing and producing false documents each carry prison terms of up to 15 years, and harboring illegal immigrants carries up to 10 years. The maximum fine is $250,000 each for all of the charges.

According to the indictment, Webber and some of the others obtained money and distributed documents by mail to conspirators. The indictment also alleges some group employees guided immigrants to Wichita to try to obtain Social Security cards by declaring them American Indians.

Melgren said he has received reports from Social Security offices, driver’s license bureaus and law enforcement agencies in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, California and other states that foreign nationals are showing up with documents they bought from Webber.

Prosecutors said that although Webber’s group was formed in the 1980s, the citizenship scheme probably started in the last year or two and exploded in the spring.

The U.S. attorney’s office has said it would look at prosecutions of illegal immigrants who obtained the documents on a case-by-case basis, noting many were victims themselves and had no criminal intent when they bought the memberships.

“The focus in this investigation is not to locate people here illegally for the purposes of deporting,” Melgren said September 19th. “The focus of this investigation is first of all to stop the defrauding of people, some of whom may have had lawful status in this country but sought to improve it by paying money to obtain these certificates.”