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Former Inter-Tribal Council execs indicted on theft charges

Zaz Hollander

A federal grand jury has indicted two former top staffers at the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council on charges they stole nearly $236,000 from the nonprofit that advocates for tribal governments across the state.

Former executive director Steven D. Osborne is accused of taking the lion's share of that sum -- $213,380 between January 2008 and February 2009 when he resigned, according to the indictment, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage. It says Osborne spent some of the money on a motorcycle, three boats and other personal items.

Thomas R. Purcell, the council's former finance director, is accused of taking about $22,720, according to the indictment. He's also accused of funneling nearly $70,000 to Osborne to pay off a council-issued credit card without ensuring the director spent the money in accordance with council policy and procedures.

Purcell served as acting executive director after Osborne resigned but was terminated only a month later, in March 2009, by the group's Executive Council.

Given the amount of money involved, a federal prosecutor on Monday called the case "certainly significant" and in line with several other federal cases filed against top officials of groups working on behalf of Alaska Native people. In the most recent, two former officials of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission stand accused of stealing more than $575,000 from the organization.

Osborne and Purcell could not be reached for comment Monday. Prosecutors say Osborne lives in Fairbanks and Purcell lives in Anchorage. As of Monday afternoon, an arraignment had yet to be scheduled.

Founded in 1992, the council has weighed in on behalf of Alaska's tribes on high-profile issues ranging from salmon bycatch and climate change to affordable energy and land rights. During the time the alleged theft took place, the group's annual budget swelled as it distributed fuel vouchers from the Venezuelan government's CITGO Petroleum Corp. to heat thousands of rural homes around Alaska.

Then the council's work stumbled, a staffer said.

The stolen money and resulting investigation "really hurt us," said Delice Calcote, the council's current executive director. Calcote, originally hired as an office manager in 2007, has worked without pay for the last two years, she said. The office is largely run by volunteers these days.

She said she couldn't comment on the indictment until it plays out in court.

"It's been a long road, nerve-wracking," Calcote said. "Now the path begins."

Getting to an indictment took years. Suspected problems with the council's books first came to light internally in 2009 when a federal grant administrator raised red flags, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Bottini. Once the suspicion of wrongdoing got the attention of law enforcement, investigators began the painstaking process of forensic accounting.

"It literally involved gathering a large volume of material in the form of bank accounts and information from AITC itself and crunching the numbers," Bottini said. "It was a long, drawn-out process to get all that done. We had to recreate thousands of documents."

The indictment specifically references two pools of council funding. An EPA grant paid for the executive director position. Between January 2008 and December 2010, the council got nearly $1.1 million from the agency. The council also received more than $8 million from the Venezuelan government for the home heating program, according to previous reports.

Osborne started work with the council in December 2007. According to the indictment, he stole money five different ways: by issuing himself $99,221 in checks without approval; by double-billing the council for Web and database development for $5,843; by making cash withdrawals totalling $31,500 for personal use; by issuing and cashing checks to himself in the amount of $24,595; and by misusing AITC credit and debit cards to buy personal items worth $52,703.

Purcell started as the council's finance director in January 2008. According to the indictment, he made 16 separate payment transactions for about $69,475 from AITC accounts to pay off the balance of Osborne's AITC credit card. He also submitted false time sheets for $19,200 charged to the CITGO account and upped his bi-weekly compensation by $3,520 without Executive Council permission, the indictment states.

Iditarod musher Mike Williams served as AITC chairman until the end of 2008 when he lost a re-election bid. Williams, an Akiak tribal council member, said he had no idea that much money was being stolen during the time he served as chair. He called the whole situation unfortunate.

"What needs to happen is to move forward from here," Williams said. "Really the tribal leadership in Alaska must move forward and get this behind us."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com