Unrecognized American Indian Tribe Charged in Immigration Scam

A group that claims to be an American Indian tribe has been indicted for selling memberships to immigrants who were told they would become U.S. citizens, federal prosecutors said Friday.

Eleven employees of the Kaweah Indian Nation also were accused in the indictment, which was returned under seal Wednesday. The man who claims to be the tribe's chief was arrested in the case earlier this month and the group's offices were raided.

Prosecutors contend the Kaweah Indian Nation marketed memberships to legal and illegal immigrants by saying the documents conferred U.S. citizenship and would allow immigrants to obtain other documents and benefits, including Social Security cards.

"Of course, citizenship cannot be obtained in that manner," U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren said at a news conference.

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

"The Kaweah Indian Nation is an invention of Mr. Webber. It is not a recognized Indian tribe," Melgren said.

The Kaweah group is charged with nine counts, including harboring illegal aliens, possession of false documents with intent to defraud the United States, conspiracy and producing false identification documents.

At a hearing Friday, Webber was allowed to post $50,000 bail for his release on Monday with electronic monitoring. In a rare move, the judge also required as a condition of release that Webber direct all solicitations for tribal membership to cease and to direct all his tribal police units to disband.

Six of the other defendants made their first court appearances Friday, and all but one, an illegal immigrant, were released on their own recognizance. Two had been arrested last month, and two others remain at large.

The indictment adds to and replaces earlier charges against Webber, 69, of Bel Aire. He is accused of harboring illegal immigrants, possession of false documents with intent to defraud the United States, conspiracy, mail fraud and producing false identification documents.

Webber's lawyer, Kurt Kerns, has said that Webber is a victim of renegade underlings who sold tribal memberships to immigrants and pocketed the money.

Kerns said at Friday's hearing that the government's arrests Friday of the employees was meant to scare and intimidate them and turn everybody against each other.

Of the charges in the indictment, mail fraud carries the most severe penalty, up to 20 years in prison. Possessing and producing false documents each carry prison terms of up to 15 years, and harboring illegal immigrants carries up to 10 years. The maximum fine is $250,000 each for all of the charges.

The group's employees charged with various counts in the indictment include residents of Kansas, California and Oklahoma, and citizens or natives of Latin American countries.

According to the indictment, Webber and some of the others obtained money and distributed documents by mail to conspirators. The indictment also alleges some group employees guided immigrants to Wichita to try to obtain Social Security cards by declaring them American Indians.

Melgren said he has received reports from Social Security offices, driver's license bureaus and law enforcement agencies in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, California and other states that foreign nationals are showing up with documents they bought from Webber.

Prosecutors said that although Webber's group was formed in the 1980s, the citizenship scheme probably started in the last year or two and exploded in the spring.

The U.S. attorney's office has said it would look at prosecutions of illegal immigrants who obtained the documents on a case-by-case basis, noting many were victims themselves and had no criminal intent when they bought the memberships.

"The focus is not to locate people here illegally for the purposes of deporting," Melgren said Friday. "The focus of this investigation is first of all to stop the defrauding of people."