Crime & Courts

Savoonga tribal workers stole $82,000 in federal funds, prosecutors say

A tribal coordinator and a secretary for the Native Village of Savoonga faces federal charges alleging they stole about $82,000 in federal funds meant for roadwork and repair of damages from a severe winter storm in 2010.

Sylvia Toolie and Peggy Akeya both have been charged with two counts of embezzlement of federal agency funds received by a tribal government.

The defendants are set to make initial court appearances in Anchorage on Nov. 8.

A plea agreement in Akeya's case was filed Thursday. The agreement says Akeya will plead guilty to her two charges, which carry maximum sentences of up to 5 and 10 years.

U.S. Assistant Attorney Andrea Hattan said the investigation into the defendants took time. Authorities obtained and analyzed an "extensive number of records and documents," she said.

Toolie worked for Kawerak Inc. between October 2006 and April 2012. Kawerak is a federally recognized Indian tribal organization based in Nome that serves as the regional nonprofit corporation formed by the Bering Straits Native Association. It provides services to villages in the Bering Straits Region.

The Native Village of Savoonga is the tribe in the St. Lawrence Island community of Savoonga, located in the Bering Sea, of about 720 residents.

Akeya worked as the secretary for the tribe's governing council, an elected position, according to the charges. Prosecutors said she also served as the tribe's unofficial bookkeeper for several years, including the period of time when the alleged thefts occurred.

Toolie stands accused of taking the bulk of the tens of thousands of embezzled funds, prosecutors said.

Her job as tribal coordinator involved administrative support, like grant reporting and budgeting. She was in charge of money, including funds that passed from the federal government to the tribe, the charges say.

Prosecutors outline in the charges two instances in which the tribe received federal funds.

In 2011 and 2012, it got $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. Additionally in 2011, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided $248,550 to the tribe, according to charges.

The BIA money was intended for the design, construction and maintenance of roads in Savoonga, but much of those funds were misused, prosecutors said. The tribe retained an engineering firm to do road design work, but the firm was never paid, and there is no record of the tribe spending money for road design.

"Instead, the BIA roads funds were used for, among other things, unauthorized payments by the tribe to Toolie … and to others," the charges against Toolie say.

When asked if others would be charged in connection with the case, Hattan pointed to Akeya's charges, filed a day after Toolie's. She did not say whether others could be charged.

The misappropriated funds from HUD were meant for repairs to homes and public buildings damaged by a winter storm in December 2010, according to the charges.

HUD made funds available to the tribe in June 2011. Prosecutors said the tribe was in financial straits by September of that year, with two of its primary bank accounts having negative balances.

Toolie drew down all of the funds from HUD's line of credit system and placed them in a tribal account, according the charges. By about Nov. 14, 2011, all of the money was gone; none of it had been spent on winter storm repairs, the charges say.

HUD repeatedly tried to find out what happened to the money in late 2011 and early 2012, but the tribe's council was unresponsive until leadership changed and Toolie resigned, prosecutors said.

The charges for both defendants are similar. The major difference is how much money they are accused of stealing.

"Toolie obtained at least approximately $69,563 of the tribe's funds for her own personal use by theft, fraud, and intentional misapplication …" the charges say. The language in Akeya's charges is the same, but the amount of allegedly stolen funds totals $14,855.

Court records show Anchorage attorney David Nesbett is representing Toolie. He did not return a request for comment.

Akeya has agreed to pay back the full amount of allegedly stolen funds, according to her plea agreement.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.