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US halts funds for $361m water pipeline in Montana

BOX ELDER, Mont. — Federal officials temporarily stopped funding a $361 million water pipeline for a Native American reservation in Montana after learning that millions of project dollars were missing and a Chippewa Cree leader in charge of the project steered federal dollars to a company he owns.

The tribe has since replaced the missing money, but federal funding for the pipeline won’t resume until tribal leaders show they have permanently fixed the problems, Bureau of Reclamation regional director Michael J. Ryan said.

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‘‘While we commend the tribe for restoring the funds soon after the shortage and for self-reporting the issue, this reallocation of funds without consultation is a serious noncompliance matter with potentially long-lasting implications,’’ Ryan said in a recent letter.

Pipeline funding is controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is part of the Interior Department.

Bureau spokesman Tyler Johnson confirmed that the agency’s inspector general is conducting an investigation.

The irregularities are among several issues on the Rocky Boy’s reservation in northern Montana, said Kenneth Blatt St. Marks, a former tribal chairman.

St. Marks said he reported the missing pipeline funds to the Bureau of Reclamation and that he is cooperating with the inspector general and with federal prosecutors in an investigation into alleged corruption on the reservation.

‘‘There’s millions and millions and millions of dollars missing here,’’ said St. Marks, whom Ryan also identified as having a potential conflict of interest in the project. ‘‘This reservation is upside down.’’

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