The leader of an unrecognized US Indian tribe was charged on Friday in an alleged scheme to sell memberships to immigrants by falsely claiming the documents conferred US citizenship, a federal prosecutor said.
Malcolm Webber, also known as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, was charged with one count of attempting to defraud the US government, one count of harboring illegal immigrants and one count of possession of false identification documents with intent to defraud the US.
"Reports are coming in from Social Security offices, driver's license bureaus and law enforcement agencies in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, California and other states that foreign nationals are showing up with documents purchased from Mr Webber," US Attorney Eric Melgren said in a news release.
The immigrants are offering the documents as proof of citizenship when seeking Social Security cards, driver's licenses and other forms of identification, he said.
More than 300 sets of documents from the Kaweah Indian Nation were submitted to the Social Security office in Wichita, according to the US Attorney's Office.
The federal complaint alleged Webber, 69, and his representatives were actively marketing tribal memberships across the US by saying the memberships conferred citizenship and would allow immigrants to obtain other documents and benefits, including Social Security cards. It noted the Bureau of Indian Affairs previously ruled that Webber is not an American Indian and his tribe is not an American Indian tribe.
The complaint alleges that immigrants paid up to US$1,200 for tribal documents.
No one from the Kaweah Indian Nation could be reached for comment on Friday. In the past, its spokesman, Manuel Urbina, has denied that the tribe, which purports to have 10,000 members nationwide, was doing anything illegal.
Urbina has said that memberships cost only US$50 for individuals and US$100 for families. He claimed others who were not part of the tribe were falsely selling tribal documents for hundreds of dollars to illegal immigrants.
Webber appeared without an attorney at his first court appearance on Friday, telling the judge that he planned to hire his own lawyer. He did not enter a plea and will remain in custody at least until a detention hearing on Wednesday.
Prosecutors will seek indictments against Webber and others in the scheme, Assistant US Attorney Brent Anderson said outside court. His office is not investigating any other tribe for similar scams, he said.
Prosecutors will determine on a case-by-case basis whether to charge immigrants who bought tribal memberships, Anderson said. Many buyers were unaware that the tribal documents could not be used to obtain Social Security cards and other benefits, he noted.
"There is a certain element of victimization in this ... They are desperate to get some kind of documents and they are willing to spend what little money they have to get some status," Anderson said.
Thousands of applications with photographs and money orders were seized during a raid Thursday of Webber's offices in Wichita, Melgren said. Agents also seized US$300,000 from a bank account bearing the name of the Kaweah Indian Nation.
The complaint alleged Webber created the group, solicited others to sell memberships and told Hispanic pastors and others that Kaweah membership conferred US citizenship.