Texas judge orders group to stop claiming tribal status

By Roxana Hegeman
Wichita, Kansas (AP) 11-07
A judge in Texas during November ordered a group that claims to be an American Indian tribe to stop selling memberships to immigrants with the false promise that they would become U.S. citizens.

State District Judge Noe Gonzalez ruled that Malcolm Webber and his Wichita-based Kaweah Indian Nation admitted the allegations by default by failing to respond to a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

The lawsuit, filed in August, alleges that the tribe violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by selling memberships for up to $400 per person to immigrants by saying that members could get a Social Security number. The lawsuit also alleged that immigrants were told they would be entitled to receive U.S. citizenship once the tribe was federally recognized.

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.

A federal indictment charging the group, Webber and 10 other people with mail fraud and other counts was unsealed in September. A trial was set for Aug. 5, but a federal prosecutor said that he expects to add defendants and charges in the complex case, when spans at least 10 states and involves an estimated 10,000 victims.

This month's ruling prohibits Kaweah and Webber from selling memberships or representing the Kaweah Indian Nation as an acknowledged tribe. It also bars them from promising that tribal membership will lead to a Social Security number, protection from deportation and U.S. citizenship.

Gonzalez also ordered them to not conceal or destroy any documents related to their business and prohibited them from claiming that the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has approved any services for sale by them.

Kurt Kerns, the court-appointed defense attorney representing the tribe and Webber in the federal case, did not immediately return a call for comment. Kerns previously has said that Webber was a victim of renegade underlings who sold tribal memberships to immigrants and pocketed the money.

The Texas civil action continues against two other defendants – Ralph Benny Tipton of San Antonio and Victor Ramirez of Edinburg, Texas. A trial date in that portion of the case has not been set.

Paco Felici, spokesman for the Texas attorney general, said any restitution and penalties would be determined once the rest of the lawsuit against those defendants is finished.

The lawsuit seeks restitution for victims and a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation.

“We are obviously working as hard as we can to put a permanent end to this fraud and seek justice for harmed consumers,” Felici said.

Tipton and Ramirez have not been criminally charged, and have denied the lawsuit’s allegations.