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Prosecutors said tribal elections manipulated with phony absentee ballots provided a foundation for the financial corruption.
Wadena didn’t dispute taking the money, but said he earned it creating jobs on the reservation. The rules regarding conflicts of interest didn’t apply on semi-sovereign Indian reservations, he argued, and allegations of vote theft were dismissed as technicalities.
A jury convicted Wadena in 1996 of conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, theft and embezzlement and he was sentenced to four years and three months in prison. An appeals court ordered the sentence reduced, saying it was too harsh, and Wadena served more than two years.
While his political opponents hailed the convictions, others on the reservation remain skeptical to this day. Wadena lived in a modest home on a lake with his family in the reservation town of Naytahwaush.
“He didn’t come and take any money out of my pocket,” Durant said. “I didn’t see it.”
“They say it was bid rigging,” he said. “Was it? I don’t know.”
Mounting a comeback
Wadena lost re-election while on trial but still maintained significant support on the reservation. In 2004 he staged a comeback for tribal chair. While Vizenor defeated him by 60 percent to 40 percent, she did so on the strength of absentee ballots. Wadena won narrowly on the reservation.
Vizenor said she wasn’t surprised by Wadena’s strong showing. “Chip was always a very likable person,” she said.
His daughter Ann Brown said he was consulted about tribal government even after his release from prison. “People still came up to him with questions like, ‘How do they do this on the reservation?’ ” she recalled.
Moe remembered Wadena as a pragmatic leader, recalling him breaking with other tribal leaders to pursue a more cooperative relationship between tribes and the state.
“He said, ‘We’d be interested in a relationship,’ ” Moe recalled. “He said there has to be a win-win out of this.”
The casino case wasn’t the end of his legal problems. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in a scheme to use tribal offices to issue “clean” titles to junked vehicles from Florida.
The most powerful White Earth leader in recent memory spent his final years in a low-key job: running bingo concessions at the Shooting Star Casino.
“He paid the price,” Moe said, referring to the prison time. “After that, he really wasn’t in play.”
Wadena died at a hospital in Fargo. He was preceded in death by his wife, Bonnie. His survivors include sons Tony, Darrell Jr., Shannon and David; daughters Tracy Wadena, Ann Brown and Serena Oppegard. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504