Squarehook: a year later

St. Paul — It was just over a year ago in April that state and tribal officials gathered to announce one of the largest busts in state game and fish history, one that included the alleged illegal netting and selling of walleyes from some of the state’s premier walleye fisheries, by both band and non-band members.

It was called Operation Squarehook, a reference to the square openings of gill nets used to capture fish.

A year later, many of those charges can still be classified as “outstanding.” In other cases, fines have been paid, some individuals never were charged, at least one died and charges were dismissed, and, in federal court, there’s been an ongoing volley of dismissals and appeals.

Of the 10 charged with Lacey Act violations in federal court, four – all members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa – saw charges dismissed at the request of the prosecution, ensuring those federal cases have ended. It’s possible, however, that tribal officials could pursue charges against those four Red Lake Band members.

It was April 15 last year that DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr was joined by then Enforcement director Jim Konrad, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe chief conservation officer Jamie Mitchell, and others, to announce the results of an investigation that had spanned three years, would result in charges against upwards of 50 individuals, and required the combined services of about 60 state, tribal, and federal law enforcement officers to execute.

The DNR said “tens of thousands” of walleyes had been netted and sold illegally.

Ten band and non-band members were issued federal indictments, a DNR press release said last April. Another 10 band members from the Leech Lake and Red Lake bands were to be charged. And more than 20 non-band members were to be charged by the state of Minnesota.

According to Landwehr: “The investigation should serve notice that the illegal commercialization of walleyes and waste of game fish will not be tolerated in Minnesota.”

To the present

As recently as late March, one of the federal defendants, one who’d previously pleaded guilty to illegally buying and selling fish, saw the plea withdrawn and charges dropped. In the process, Bagley’s Larry Bellefy joined fellow Red Lake Band members Larry Good, Thomas Sumner, and Brian Holthusen, against whom federal charges also have been dismissed.

Federal officials won’t appeal the dismissal; it was the U.S. Attorney’s Office that requested the dismissals, and also recommended Bellefy’s plea be withdrawn.

Charges also have been dismissed against the other six defendants, but federal prosecutors have appealed those dismissals.

Thomas Calhoun-Lopez, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota, said earlier this week that prosecutors chose to drop charges against three Red Lake members, and reverse the plea of the fourth, because the legal framework in place to allow for prosecution had changed; the “Code of Federal Regulations” no longer matched the system in place that regulates fishing at Red Lake.

“We found out the CFRs were badly outdated (after the cases had been charged),” Calhoun-Lopez said. The legal status of the former Red Lake Fisheries Association had changed, while federal regulations had not.

An Internet search indicated the Code of Federal Regulations, as they relate to tribal commercial fishing on Red Lake, date back to 1982.

Red Lake tribal officials say things changed following the walleye crash of the 1990s, and subsequent recovery effort of the state and band.

Michelle Paquin, tribal legal advisor for Red Lake, said that following the crash of the lake’s walleye population, a moratorium was placed on fishing, commercial and otherwise, thereby eliminating the need for the former fisheries association. When fishing later resumed (about a decade ago), the Red Lake Fishery, a commercial operation, was hatched.

According to Paquin, federal regulations refer to an entity that no longer exists.

Could the four Red Lake members face tribal charges? Paquin says it’s possible. The legal definition of “double jeopardy” doesn’t apply to separate sovereign entities, as the federal and tribal governments are, she said.

If rules were broken, she said she expects the violators would be held accountable.

“It’s a matter of principle,” Paquin said. “It’s our resources, our members. We want to send a message that (endangering the resource) is unacceptable.”

Others wonder if the dismissal of the federal cases will have a bearing on DNR enforcement by state conservation officers. Ken Soring, current DNR Enforcement director, said those cases left the water a bit muddy.

“It leaves it somewhat (questionable) what the regulations are,” Soring said.

U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim earlier dismissed cases against six other federal defendants, basing his argument primarily on language from an 1837 treaty between the United States and Indian nations.

Calhoun-Lopez said each of those six dismissals has been appealed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

That court could determine the future of cases against Leech Lake Band members Michael Brown, Marc Lyons, and Jerry Reyes, White Earth member Frederick Tibbetts, and non-band members Alan Hemme, of Bena, and Michael Nei, of Bemidji.

Information provided by law enforcement states that both Red Lake and Leech Lake bands allow tribal members subsistence fishing rights, but it is illegal to buy and/or sell game fish. Red Lake, however, does operate a fish processing and sales facility.

State side

DNR Enforcement this week issued a summary of what’s occurred regarding those who faced state charges in Operation Squarehook.

Among the department’s points:

• State charges were brought in seven counties, including Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Itasca, Otter Tail, Pennington, and Polk, and included 26 individuals and 38 charges.
• All charges have been resolved, resulting in convictions on 30 of the charges.
• Some cases with multiple charges involved plea agreements that included dismissal of some charges and conviction of some charges for the individual.

Some 27 charges were considered for 11 other individuals, but were not charged for a number of reasons, including expiration of the statute of limitations, “prosecutorial discretion,” tribal jurisdiction, or because the individual died.

In the case of prosecutorial discretion, Soring said at least one county prosecutor failed to pursue charges because that county attorney was “hesitant that if (the case) was appealed, (the attorney) would not get support from the state (attorney general).”

Soring said tribal charges had been brought against at least five individuals on the Red Lake Reservation. Other tribal court cases were pending.

As the case unfolded last year, DNR Enforcement reported the office of Gov. Mark Dayton indicated an inquiry in the case was possible, and that legislation could be considered should lawmakers deem the penalties in the case not harsh enough.

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