Blackfeet TANF Scheme Leads to 30 Months in Federal Custody
The United States Attorney’s Office announced that SANDRA MARIE SANDERVILLE, 58, of Browning, was sentenced on June 12, 2014, to 30 months in federal prison, to be followed by two-and-one-half years of supervised release, by U.S. District Judge Brian M. Morris. During the hearing in Great Falls, Sanderville was also ordered to pay $297,612 in restitution.
Sanderville was sentenced in connection with her February 27, 2014, guilty plea to theft from an Indian Tribal Government receiving federal grant funds. At the change of plea hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad told the court that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program for the federal government is designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency. Federally recognized Indian tribes can apply for funding to administer and operate their own TANF programs. TANF gives federally recognized Indian tribes flexibility in the design of welfare programs that promote work and responsibility and strengthen families. Similar to states, they receive block grants to design and operate programs that accomplish one of the four purposes of the TANF program. Between 2006 and 2010, the Blackfeet Tribe received over $3,000,000 annually, for a total of over $12,000,000 to fund its tribal TANF program.
In 2006, Sandra Sanderville became the director of the Blackfeet Tribe’s TANF program. In that position, she supervised the office staff, administered the TANF program, and managed certain TANF accounts personally. Between April 2006 and her dismissal in November 2010 (although she was suspended with pay and was not terminated until the following year), Sanderville engaged in a variety of schemes designed to overpay TANF clients—or pay ineligible claimant—who would then cash the illicit TANF checks and provide Sanderville with a cash kickback of a portion of the overpayment.
The scheme involved both providing TANF funds to ineligible recipients and overpaying eligible recipients. The overpayments were accomplished by adding children and grandchildren to the payment calculation, some real and others completely fabricated, failing to remove household residents who she knew were no longer in the household, and including ineligible non-tribal members on an eligible member’s application. Sanderville made payments to ineligible recipients by simply approving their application, knowing that they were not eligible for some reason such as being non-tribal members or having incomes in excess of eligibility limits.
The prosecution informed the court that Sanderville was able to conceal the scheme in part because she could, as director, “restrict” access to accounts and thereby prevent any other TANF office staff from seeing the computer file. Sanderville’s scheme covered a four year period and involved approximately 16 to 20 TANF beneficiaries. The loss to the TANF program was $297,612.
When Sanderville became the subject of an investigation by the Blackfeet Tribe’s Internal Affairs Office, Sanderville went into the computer system and attempted to delete or destroy all files relating to the fraudulent scheme. However, a back-up computer file existed at an out-of-state location that allowed investigators to identify and recreate the transactions that were part of Sanderville’s “split-check” schemes.
Sanderville was interviewed and admitted that she had designed and profited from the scheme. Initially, Sanderville alleged that she had only kept a small portion ($100) of each fraudulent overpayment, but when confronted with the statements given law enforcement by the known beneficiaries, Sanderville admitted that she had received the majority of the ill-gotten proceeds. Sanderville explained that she had developed a gambling problem and was gambling hundreds of dollars a week. Sanderville claimed sole responsibility for the scheme and insisted that no one else in the TANF office knew of or participated in the overpayment scheme. She also claimed that she had misled the beneficiaries by telling them that the additional money was “extra” money from a grant or other fund. She also, according to her statement, advised beneficiaries that the money they were returning to her was going back into the TANF program.
In its sentencing recommendation, the United States Attorney’s Office asked that Sanderville be sentenced within the federal sentencing guideline range and not be given a more lenient sentence. “Probation is not a punishment; probation is an inconvenience. Only with a significant sentence—in response to a serious theft and abuse of public trust—will all of the factors of the [sentencing] statute be met.”
The case was brought as part of the U.S. Attorney’s Guardians Project, a strike force of investigators from a variety of federal agencies focused on public corruption in Indian Country. The lead agency in the Sanderville investigation was the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS OIG). Gerald T. Roy, Special Agent in Charge of the Kansas City Regional Office of the HHS OIG said, “The OIG will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who defraud tribes and tribal programs funded with HHS grants. The HHS grant funds are intended to help those who are less fortunate and we are dedicated to investigating and prosecuting these types of deceptive schemes.”
Because there is no parole in the federal system, the truth in sentencing guidelines mandate that Sanderville will likely serve the time imposed by the court. In the federal system, Sanderville does have the opportunity to shorten her term of custody by earning credit for good behavior. However, this reduction will not exceed 15 percent of the overall sentence.
The HHS OIG was assisted in the investigation by the Department of Agriculture OIG, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Blackfeet Tribe’s Internal Affairs Office.