PABLO — A traffic citation, a dab of Wite-Out, a few hundred dollars and a trip to Albuquerque have sparked a legal battle within the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ justice system.
These items lie at the center of two related criminal cases against Tribal Court Chief Judge Winona Tanner and Clerk of the Tribal Court Genevieve Morigeau.
The Tribal Court has criminal jurisdiction over tribal members and other Native Americans on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and currently lists nine employees on its website.
According to case files, several of the charges against Morigeau and Tanner stem from events in September 2017, when the Montana Highway Patrol issued Morigeau a citation for operating a motor vehicle without proof of insurance.
Tribal prosecutors allege that, after Deputy Clerk of Court Malia Hamel entered the citation into the clerk’s log book, she “observed Ms. Morigeau physical (sic) remove the citation and use ‘white out’ to remove the entry that Ms. Hamel had made into the log book.”
The prosecution’s supplemental probable cause affidavit goes on to allege that Hamel told Judge Tanner about this incident, and that Tanner agreed to discuss it with Morigeau. “Within approximately 15 minutes Ms. Hamel began receiving text messages from Ms. Morigeau about the citation” that accused Hamel of trying to get Morigeau in trouble and questioning Hamel's knowledge of the incident, the affidavit says.
Soon after, Tribal Police Chief Craig Couture interviewed Morigeau about the incident. Prosecutor Larry Ginnings wrote that Morigeau admitted to receiving the citation, removing it from the office, and whiting it out from the log book.
“Ms. Morigeau stated that it was common for employees of the Clerk of Court office to remove their citations if they had proof of insurance. She admitted that she did not have insurance for the vehicle for which she was cited. Ms. Morigeau stated that Judge Tanner did know about her removing the citation ‘after Malia had made a big deal about it.’ Ms. Morigeau said that Judge Tanner told her to just bring in her proof of insurance.”
Ginnings charged Morigeau with one count of tampering with witnesses, informants or physical evidence, and another count of official misconduct.
The allegations didn’t end there. In June 2017, Ginnings wrote, Deputy Clerk Hamel went to retrieve $500 in bond money, but found only $300. Morigeau reportedly called Hamel into her office, where Tanner was also present.
“Ms. Hamel states that Ms. Morigeau then reached into her purse and handed Ms. Hamel $200 and told her that she had been short of money and had borrowed the money.
“Following the reporting of the incident concerning the missing $200, there was no change in procedures regarding the handling of the bond money,” Ginnings said.
Another $140 in Fish and Game money, Ginnings added, also had gone missing. These allegations drew a second official misconduct charge.
Each of these offenses could receive a maximum 180-day sentence in the tribal jail, a fine of up to $500, or both. Morigeau is being represented by Polson attorney Robert J. Long. Her case is currently scheduled for jury trial on Sept. 6.
Morigeau’s actions are also part of another, more complex case against Tanner, the chief judge.
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In an Oct. 12, 2017, criminal complaint, Ginnings charged Tanner with one count of tampering with witnesses, informants or physical evidence. Her knowledge of Morigeau’s actions with regards to the traffic citation, he wrote, amounted to “withholding evidence and information material to prosecution of the citation.”
He also issued an official misconduct charge for failing to act on the news that Morigeau had “borrowed” $200 of bond money.
The case dragged through tribal court in the months that followed, with Ginnings and Tanner’s attorney, Britt Cotter, wrangling over evidence and other matters. Then, on Feb. 28, Ginnings filed an amended criminal complaint that added a third count: theft.
That allegation came from an October 2017 trip that Tanner, Morigeau and Tribal Court Bailiff David Plum took to the National American Indian Judges Association Conference in Albuquerque.
An affidavit stated that the tribes had paid Morigeau about $660 for her travel expenses prior to her departure, and that Tanner approved the expenses. A few days later, Tanner charged nearly $300 to a tribal credit card account for lodging at the hotel where the conference was taking place. “Thus, Tribal funds were used to pay twice for the same lodging,” the affadavit said.
In a deposition included with the case file, Tanner stated that Morigeau traveled to New Mexico before her, and that the hotel declined the bank card she presented to check in. However, Tanner was able to complete the transaction with the credit card on file for the hotel deposit.
She explained that she did this because “I did not want my staff member to be sitting in the hotel lobby not having the ability to check in to her room,” and that she informed Morigeau she would have to repay the cost upon her return.
If convicted on the theft charge, Tanner could face up to 60 days’ imprisonment in the tribal jail, a fine of up to $250, or both.
On March 28, Cotter, Tanner’s attorney, moved to have the two original charges dismissed with prejudice. He argued they were "based on allegations from Malia Hamel (who) is the step-daughter of Tribal Court Judge Brad Pluff.”
Pluff had allowed the criminal complaint to be filed. According to an interview that Cotter had with Couture and Ginnings, Pluff may also have been present in an unrecorded October conversation about the alleged crimes between those two individuals, Malia and her mother.
These details, Cotter argued, meant that Tanner’s due process rights had been violated. “Judge Pluff had a conflict of interest and he never should have presided over this case.”
That drew yet another opposing brief, in which the prosecution argued that treating family ties as a source of bias “is an unworkable standard in Tribal Court.” In addition, the brief noted that Pluff had since recused himself and another judge had found sufficient probable cause to support the charges.
Acting Judge Tracy Labin Rhodes has scheduled a status hearing in Tanner's case for Aug. 29.
Tribal Court has issued “gag orders” in both cases, preventing those connected with the proceedings from discussing them in public.
Court staff said that the current employment status of Tanner and Morigeau is a private personnel matter. However, neither is listed as an employee on the court's website, and Brad Pluff is listed as acting chief judge.