BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Civil rights attorneys have moved to exonerate a former chairman of the Crow Indian Tribe of a bribery conviction by obtaining unreleased emails from a federal judge who has been reprimanded for sending racist correspondence.
Former Montana U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull sentenced Clifford Birdinground ("bird-in-ground") to three years in prison in 2003. The 79-year-old Crow leader had pleaded guilty to taking $2,700 in kickbacks after being accused of referring tribal business to a car dealership.
When Birdinground sought to retract his plea and go to trial, Cebull rejected the request, a decision upheld on appeal.
Cebull resigned last year after an investigation into a racist email he sent involving President Barack Obama.
A judicial committee determined Cebull sent hundreds more inappropriate emails from his federal account that showed disdain for blacks, American Indians, Hispanics, women, certain religions and others. The messages have not been released.
Birdinground recently joined a pending legal petition in California to preserve Cebull's emails as potential evidence in future lawsuits. Birdinground is represented by attorneys from the California Civil Rights Law Group.
"It's our view that when Judge Cebull refused to accept (Birdinground's) motion to have his plea withdrawn, that the judge did so based on potential bias against Native Americans," attorney Lawrence Organ said.
Organ said he wants to know if Cebull's emails contain direct references to Birdinground's case or have revelations of bias. He added that the emails could raise other issues if Cebull was communicating with others in a position of power.
Cebull could not be reached for comment. The committee that investigated his emails found no evidence of any bias when it analyzed his cases.
When Cebull ordered Birdinground to prison in 2006 — after years of unsuccessful appeals — the judge said if he were to resentence the defendant it would be for an even longer term.
Cebull cited the "widespread nature of (Birdinground's) corruption" that came to light in other cases. He referred to alleged embezzlement of tribal funds by a Crow Tribe finance director to raise money for Birdinground's criminal defense.
Birdinground's attorney in the bribery case, Paul Matt, said his client maintains his innocence and only pleaded guilty because he had difficulty understanding English and the legal process. Matt filed an unsuccessful appeal over Cebull's refusal to let Birdinground withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial.
Yet Matt said there was no allegation Cebull was biased against his client because he was an American Indian.
"We made no arguments of that type," Matt said. "Our problem was he (Cebull) just didn't listen to our input."
Former U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer, whose office prosecuted Birdinground, noted that the 9th U.S. Circuit said Birdinground understood oral English and "knowingly and intelligently" entered his guilty plea.
"He pleaded guilty, was found guilty, was sentenced for the crime and that's never been disrupted by the Court of Appeals in any respect," Mercer said.
Defendants in the petition to preserve Cebull's emails are 9th Circuit Executive Cathy Catterson and the Committee on Judicial Conduct of the Judicial Conference of the United States.
Ninth Circuit spokesman David Madden said he could not comment on the petition because it remains in litigation. A response from the Ninth Circuit and the Judicial Conduct Committee is due in December.
The petition was first filed in July. Acting on behalf of Catterson and the Judicial Conduct Committee, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice have sought to dismiss the case in part because they said the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to bring a complaint.
The plaintiffs' attorneys are now attempting to resolve that issue by amending their petition with Birdinground and other parties as potential victims of bias by Cebull.
The petition also claims Cebull violated the rights of American Indians in other cases, including a lawsuit over satellite polling places on reservations, and a case involving the Crow Tribe's water rights.