3rd woman accused of travel fraud under program to fight violence against Native women

3rd woman accused of travel fraud under program to fight violence against Native women

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Prosecutors have named a third defendant in a travel fraud scheme they charged against members of an organization dedicated to fighting violence against Native women in Montana.

Sheryl Lynn Lawrence pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Billings on Thursday to charges that she claimed $1,826.02 in reimbursement for a trip to Las Vegas in 2017 that she knew was not authorized by the U.S. Office on Violence Against Women, which provided the funding.

Lawrence is charged alongside Meredith McConnell and Barbara Mary Daychief, both of whom deny charges. Lawrence served as the executive director of the Montana Native Women's Coalition. 

On Thursday, McConnell pleaded not guilty to reduced charges that dropped three counts of false claims she’d earlier denied. Those pertained to travel to Polson, Palm Springs and San Diego. The amount of money McConnell is accused of wrongly collecting in the scheme was reduced in the new charges by roughly $28, to $1,826.02. Defense attorney Penelope Strong said “we very much assert her innocence in this case,” in an emailed statement.

McConnell was chairwoman of the coalition and executive director of a Lame Deer victim services organization called Healing Hearts during the period of alleged thefts between late 2017 and early 2018.

Daychief, who was a coalition board member, ran up false travel receipts amounting to $2,973.74, prosecutors charge. The payments were made for two trips to Billings and one to Las Vegas.

Each woman faces charges of theft from a program receiving federal funding, wire fraud, false claims and misprision, or deliberate concealment, of a felony.

McConnell and Daychief had received training by the First Nations Development Institute on conflicts of interest, whistleblower policies, financial oversight and the code of ethics of the coalition, prosecutors noted.

The training took place two months after the coalition’s previous executive director pleaded guilty to stealing federal funds, prosecutors said.

Then-Director Toni Louise Plummer-Alvernaz inflated work hours, used the organization’s credit cards to pay for vacations and claimed travel that never occurred. She was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay $246,024 in restitution in 2017.

The federal office awarded $318,008 in funds to Montana Native Women’s Coalition for the 2018 fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, 2018, according to filings by prosecutors.

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