A woman who embezzled over $300,000 from the Skagway Traditional Council was sentenced to serve eighteen months in prison this week.
According to the office of Alaska’s District Attorney, 64-year-old Delia Commander of Oregon pleaded to guilty on one count of embezzlement and must pay $297,731 in restitution to the Council.
Commander was the Tribal Administrator for the Skagway tribe from 2008 to 2014. It was her responsibility to manage finances, grants, contracts, housing, and more. According to the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward, Commander successfully embezzled more money than in any other tribal fraud case she’s worked on.
“The Defendant plead guilty to embezzling $300,000, which is the equivalent of two full years of operating budget,” Steward says.
The tribe receives about $150,000 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs every year. Commander used some of that money to pay for college tuition, credit cards, cash advances at casinos, and a trip to Hawaii. She applied for grants from entities like the EPA for additional funds, and didn’t follow-up on reporting.
The theft was discovered when she abruptly resigned three years ago as the Council began to press for financial documentation and question her frequent absences.
Court documents say sentencing was difficult to decide in Commander’s case, since she was a “grandmother” with “no prior criminal history” and “a master’s degree.” But prosecutors felt a significant sentence was justified partly to deter others from tribal fraud.
“There are over 200 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, most of them receiving some federal funding,” Steward says. “That system, in these remote places, and small organizations, relies heavily on trust. Trust that the organizations and the people running them will spend it in the ways that it’s meant to be spent. ”
The Skagway Traditional Council is still working on repairing the financial damage. Their new administrator, Sara Kinjo-Hischer, said the tribe was grateful it’s over, and they can move forward.