The Leech Lake Tribal Council will decide as early as next week the fate of Tribal Secretary-Treasurer Mike Bongo, who is under fire for making a questionable multi-million dollar loan to a local businessman.
Bongo is accused of taking $2.4 million from the tribal treasury and loaning it to a Walker businessman. The tribal constitution says that kind of transaction requires the approval of the full tribal council and the signature of the tribal chairman and the secretary-treasurer. But Bongo authorized the secret deal on his own and his was the only signature on the loan.
The tribal council hired former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug to investigate the loan. Lillehaug’s report concluded that Bongo knowingly and negligently violated the band’s laws and policies.
The recipient of the loan was Bill Bieloh. He was a well known Walker resident, and the founder of a big summer classic rock concert event in Walker called Moondance Jam. The big twist to this story is that Bieloh died of a massive heart attack in September, just a week after signing the loan with Bongo.
According to Lillehaug’s report, Bieloh was supposed to have taken out a million dollar life insurance policy as a condition of the loan, but he had only a $500,000 policy when the deal was signed. Tribal officials say it’s now unclear whether they’ll be able to recover any of the money from Bieloh’s estate.
The money came from a $3.5 million payment the band received from Enbridge Energy. The payment gave the company a right-of-way to run an oil pipeline across the reservation.
Lillehaug’s report did not find any evidence that Bongo or anyone else involved in the loan benefited personally from the transaction. In several public meetings about the controversy, Bongo defended the loan, calling it an investment for the tribe, since the tribe was earning eight percent interest.
A petition signed by hundreds of band members charges Bongo with malfeasance in the handling of tribal affairs, dereliction or neglect of duty, refusal to comply with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s constitution and violation of the tribal laws of Leech Lake.
A tribal council hearing on the matter is set for Wednesday. Tribal leaders could vote to remove Bongo from office, or authorize a recall election.