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‘Tribal chief’ charged in immigration scam

Immigration-Indian Tribes
This undated driver's license photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows Malcolm L. Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The leader of an unrecognized American Indian tribe was charged Friday with scheming to sell tribal memberships to immigrants by falsely claiming the documents would make them U.S. citizens, a federal prosecutor said.

Malcolm L. Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, was charged with attempting to defraud the federal government, harboring illegal immigrants and possession of false identification documents with intent to defraud the United States.

“Reports are coming in from Social Security offices, driver’s license bureaus and law enforcement agencies in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, California and other states that foreign nationals are showing up with documents purchased from Mr. Webber,” U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren said Friday.

He said more than 300 sets of documents from the Kaweah Indian Nation were submitted to the Social Security office in Wichita.

Immigrants had also offered the documents as proof of citizenship to try to get driver’s licenses and other forms of identification, Melgren said.

The federal complaint alleges that Webber, 69, and his representatives actively marketed tribal memberships across the nation. It also notes that the Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled in 1984 that Webber is not an American Indian and his tribe is not an American Indian tribe.

No one from the Kaweah Indian Nation could be reached for comment Friday. In the past, its spokesman, Manuel Urbina, has denied any illegal acts.

Funds seized during police raid
Urbina has claimed that others who were not part of the tribe, which claims 10,000 members, were falsely selling tribal documents for hundreds of dollars.

Thousands of applications with photographs and money orders ranging from $50 to $500 were seized Thursday during a raid of Webber’s offices in Wichita, Melgren said. Agents also seized $300,000 from a bank account under the Kaweah Indian Nation name.

The complaint alleges that Webber created the group, solicited others to sell memberships and told Hispanic pastors and others that Kaweah membership conferred U.S. citizenship.

“Naturalizing is the only way for non-citizens to become U.S. citizens,” Sheila O’Neill, assistant special agent in the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Office of Investigations in Kansas City, Mo., said in a written statement. “Anyone who makes any other claim defrauds his customers and the U.S. government.”

Webber faces prison, fine
The tribe’s secretary, a woman from El Salvador, and her Guatemalan husband were charged Aug. 15 in Wichita with federal immigration violations that prosecutors said were linked to the case.

Days later, the Texas attorney general’s office sued Webber, the Kaweah Indian Nation and two tribal members. The lawsuit alleged they fraudulently sold memberships by claiming that tribal members could get a Social Security number, protection from deportation and U.S. citizenship once the tribe was federally recognized.

In the 1984 ruling, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said Kaweah Indian Nation Inc. was an urban Indian interest group from Porterville, Calif., that had no relation to the aboriginal Kaweah Indians.

If convicted, Webber could face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the charge of possessing false identification documents with intent to defraud the United States, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The charge of harboring illegal aliens carries a maximum sentence of 10 years and the conspiracy charge carries a penalty of five years.