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Press Release

Former Blackfeet TANF Director Pleads Guilty To Massive Welfare Fraud After Guardians Uncover Almost $300,000 In Losses Sandra Marie Sanderville

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Montana

The United States Attorney's Office announced that the former Director of the Blackfeet Tribe's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) Program, SANDARA MARIE SANDERVILLE, 58, of Browning, entered a plea of guilty to embezzlement and fraud before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong in Great Falls on February 27, 2014. She faces a possible 10 years in prison and a $250,000. Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad told the Court that his office would be seeking over $297,000 in restitution.

In an Offer of Proof, the prosecutor told the Court that in 2006, Sanderville became the Director of the Blackfeet Tribe's TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program. TANF is a federally funded welfare program designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency. States receive block grants to design and operate programs that accomplish one of the purposes of the TANF program. Federally recognized Indian tribes can apply for funding to administer and operate their own TANF programs.

Between 2006 and 2010 (the time period of the indictment), the Blackfeet Tribe received over $3,000,000 annually in TANF monies, for a total of over $12,000,000.

Between April 2006 and her dismissal in November of 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 who would then cash the illicit TANF checks and provide Sanderville with a cash kick back 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 paying ineligible non-tribal members. Sanderville was able to conceal the scheme in part because she could, as Director, "restrict" access to accounts thereby preventing 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. Federal auditors have established the loss to the TANF program was over $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. A back-up computer file existed at an out-of-state location which allowed investigators to identify and recreate the transactions which 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 of 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.

The case was pursued by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General. That agency was partnered with the other agencies from the U.S. Attorney's Guardians Project, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General. The HHS OIG also received substantial assistance from the Blackfeet Tribe's Internal Affairs office.

U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter lauded the work of the Guardians in the Sanderville case as well as the myriad other cases investigated and prosecuted since the project was disclosed in 2013.

Rarely does government produce such an effective anti-corruption team as has been created by the agents of the Guardians Project. Abandoning the traditional model of "You work your case and I'll work mine", these agencies have committed themselves to mutual cooperation. Working closely together-providing each other with time, resources, and expertise-has made these investigators champions of Indian Country communities eager to rid themselves of corruption and the abuses of trust and power."

Updated January 14, 2015