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Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler told members this week that the tribe is funding the legal defense of one of the two members charged with stealing from the tribe, according to tribal members who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Butler addressed the tribe, which owns Foxwoods Resort Casino, at a meeting Tuesday on the Mashantucket reservation.
He also told members that he had met with U.S. Department of Justice officials last month in Washington, D.C., to discuss the federal investigation that led to indictments of Steven Thomas, the tribal council's treasurer, and his brother, Michael, a former council chairman.
Details of the Washington meeting could not be confirmed. Butler did not respond Thursday to phone and email messages seeking comment. A Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment.
According to a tribal member who attended Tuesday's meeting, Butler characterized the prosecution of Steven Thomas as an attack on sovereignty with "broad implications" for all of Indian Country. Sovereignty refers to the right of federally recognized tribes, such as the Mashantucket Pequots, to govern themselves.
Butler, according to the tribal member, said the council was standing behind Steven Thomas, who pleaded not guilty Monday in federal court to one count of theft from an Indian tribal organization and two counts of theft from an Indian tribal government receiving federal funds.
The U.S. government alleges Thomas stole more than $700,000 from the tribe while working as assistant director of its Department of Natural Resources Protection from January 2005 through June 2008.
He was elected to the tribal council in 2009.
Steven Thomas' attorney, Richard Reeve, indicated in court Monday that the prosecution believes his client accepted payment for work he never performed.
Michael Thomas, who chaired the tribal council from 2003 to 2009, was indicted on the same counts of theft as Steven and also pleaded not guilty Monday, appearing in federal court in New Haven with a public defender.
Michael Thomas is accused of stealing more than $100,000 from the tribe from October 2007 through April 2009. The charges against him are believed to involve his alleged misuse of a tribal credit card.
There was little discussion of Michael Thomas' case during the tribal meeting, according to the tribal member who attended. It was during the meeting's question-and-answer period that Butler revealed the tribe was paying for Steven Thomas' defense, the tribal member said.
"He (Butler) said it was because this was about an attack on sovereignty and the tribe's ability to self-govern," the person said.
"Some people said it's a personnel issue; you don't go to work, you don't get paid. The question was posed, 'Is it really a tribal matter?' That's not what we hear. This was a person's choice not to work and it predated his election to the council, so why are we paying?"
Steven Thomas, who spoke briefly at the meeting, did not discuss the charges he faces, the tribal member said.