Men linked to Catawbas plead guilty to fraud

COLUMBIA -- Two Columbia men who had business ties to the Catawba Indian Nation pleaded guilty Friday to federal election fraud charges stemming from campaign contributions authorities said were made to win lawmakers' support of a proposed tribal high-stakes bingo hall.

David Therrell Collier, 63, and Robert Howell Price III, 47, each face up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine when sentenced in November in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Each was formally charged Tuesday with one count of causing a false statement to be made to the Federal Election Commission. Their plea agreements were filed at the same time, court records show.

Collier in 1997 formed a joint business venture called New River Management & Development Co. with the York County-based tribe. Price served as the chief operating officer of the company, which ran the tribe's now-closed Rock Hill bingo hall.

The two men admitted in court papers to funneling a total of $66,500 in campaign contributions to various federal "candidates, elected officials and political committees" from March 2000 through September 2004 in the names of other donors, who authorities say were reimbursed with tribal funds.

No candidates, elected officials or contributors are identified in court papers. The tribe is identified only as "Indian Tribe A," though it is described as a "federally recognized Tribe of Native Americans whose reservation was located in Rock Hill, South Carolina."

The Catawbas are the state's only federally recognized tribe.

Tribe not charged

The State newspaper reported in September 2005 that the FBI had raided the Columbia offices of New River Management & Development and another company with ties to the Catawbas as part of its investigation into election fraud.

"Neither the tribe or any tribal member has been charged with anything or has been alleged to have done anything wrong in connection with" the case, said Columbia attorney Dwight Drake, who represents the Catawbas.

He declined further comment.

Price's attorney, Dick Harpootlian of Columbia, and Columbia lawyer Jim Griffin, who represents Collier, said Friday their clients have "cooperated fully" with federal investigators.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Jaclyn Lesch declined to comment on specifics.

Wesley Denton, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Friday campaign officials were contacted in January by the U.S. Department of the Interior regarding money donated to the campaign during 2004.

He said the office cooperated and "provided the requested information," though he could not provide specifics.

In a prepared statement Friday, U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., said his campaign received $1,000 contributions from Price in 2000 and 2002, and his office has no records of any contributions from Collier.

"Our acceptance of these contributions was totally unwitting, and if the Justice Department will inform us to whom payment should be made, my campaign will gladly refund the appropriate party and correct our campaign finance returns," Spratt said.

Efforts to contact U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and the state's five other congressmen were unsuccessful.

Illegal donations

Federal election law prohibits "straw" campaign donations -- those made in someone else's name. It also is illegal for a person to contribute more than $2,000 to a federal candidate in either a primary or general election.

The Department of Justice's Public Integrity Section in court papers contended Collier and Price devised the donation scheme to prevent the public from knowing the Catawbas were "supporting particular candidates for federal office and elected officials," as well as to avoid individual campaign contribution limits.

The pair "knowingly solicited and obtained campaign contributions from friends, family members and business associates" over the four-year period, according to court documents. They reimbursed contributors with checks drawn on bank accounts in the name of the "Tribe A Economic Development, or the accounts of joint ventures between Collier and Indian Tribe A," court papers said.

"Ultimately, however, tribal funds were used to reimburse either the individual conduits or the accounts used to initially reimburse the conduits," court papers said.

Federal authorities alleged that to compensate for a loss of profits from the tribe's former Rock Hill bingo hall, Collier and unnamed "others" came up with a plan to open and operate a tribal gaming facility near Santee.

Because that site was to "provide more and different types of gaming" than the Rock Hill location, Collier and "others realized that they needed the support of elected officials, including federal and state representatives from South Carolina," court papers said.

The Catawbas had threatened to open a video poker operation on the reservation if they couldn't open a high-stakes bingo hall near Santee, which they contended is allowed under a 1993 settlement with the state.

The Catawbas have said they need high-stakes bingo because their former Rock Hill bingo operation lost millions after the state-run lottery began in 2002.

The S.C. Supreme Court in March ruled the tribe could not operate video poker because the state banned the $3 billion industry in 2000. The tribe has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

Jay Bender, the tribe's longtime lawyer, said Friday he didn't believe the case against Collier and Price would affect that appeal. Bender, a Columbia attorney, specializes in media law and First Amendment issues. Among his clients are The State newspaper and the South Carolina Press Association. The State is a member of the press association.