Texas AG seeks default judgment against unrecognized tribe

By Roxana Hegeman
Wichita, Kansas (AP) 11-07

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is seeking a default judgment against an unrecognized American Indian tribe that allegedly defrauded illegal immigrants by falsely claiming they could get Social Security numbers if they bought tribal memberships.

The Wichita-based Kaweah Indian Nation and its self-proclaimed chief, Malcolm L. Webber, failed to answer a lawsuit filed against them in August by the Texas attorney general’s office alleging they violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, said Paco Felici, spokesman for the Texas attorney general’s office. In its lawsuit, the Texas attorney general’s office contended that the tribe sold memberships for up to $400 per person to immigrants by saying that tribal members could get a Social Security number and protection from deportation. Immigrants were also allegedly told they would be entitled to receive U.S. citizenship once the tribe was federally recognized.

Kurt Kerns, the court-appointed defense attorney representing the tribe and Webber in a separate federal criminal case with similar allegations, was out of his office. He did not return phone messages left at his office and on his cell phone.

A man who answered the phone at Webber’s home said Webber no longer lived there and hung up.

Kerns previously has said that Webber was a victim of renegade underlings who sold tribal memberships to immigrants and pocketed the money. Kerns also has said that the government’s arrests of the employees was meant to scare and intimidate them and turn everybody against each other.

The two other defendants named in the Texas lawsuit – Ralph Benny Tipton of San Antonio and Victor Ramirez of Edinburg, Texas – have not been criminally charged, but they have denied the allegations in the civil action.

Their defense attorneys did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled in 1984 that the Kaweah group had no historical link to American Indian tribes, and that Webber is not an Indian.

Court documents filed in a federal case against the Kaweah Indian Nation identify Tipton as the tribe’s ambassador to Mexico and the tribal chief for an area covering Austin to San Antonio. Tipton was also in charge of a Texas tribal police unit, according to a tribal newsletter filed as evidence in the federal case.

A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 19 in Edinburg, Texas, on the attorney general’s request for a default judgment against the tribe and Webber.

The Texas lawsuit seeks an injunction to keep the tribe and its agents from selling memberships, restitution for victims, and a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation.

Texas authorities have yet to determine how many immigrants were defrauded or the final amount of the fine and restitution, Felici said.

“These defendants relied on promoting their services through fairly large congregations throughout Texas, so many consumers were exposed to the misinformation that the defendants were spreading,” he said.

Separately, the U.S. attorney’s office in Wichita has filed federal charges against the tribe and 11 employees. That case is scheduled for trial on Aug. 5, 2008.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson told a federal judge last week he anticipated filing a superseding indictment adding more defendants and charges in a complex case that spans at least 10 states, including Nebraska, and involves an estimated 10,000 victims. Anderson said he didn’t think the Texas lawsuit would have any impact on the federal case in Kansas.

Felici also said he anticipated the federal case to have no bearing on the Texas civil case.

It is also unlikely the injunction sought by Texas would have any immediate effect. Conditions of Webber’s bond include that he stop all solicitations for tribal membership and that he disband all his tribal police units.