Joe Biden nominates Cherokee citizen to federal bench

Kalle Benallie

A Cherokee citizen is among President Joe Biden’s nominees for federal judge seats.

Former Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill was nominated Wednesday to serve as a federal judge in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she would be the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge in Oklahoma. Hill is Biden’s fourth Native judicial nominee.

“She is a brilliant attorney and dedicated public servant who possesses the knowledge, demeanor and compassion to serve the country well on the bench. As a female and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she not only adds diversity to the ranks of federal judges, she also brings knowledge of Indian Country issues that we need more among federal judges,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin said.


Hill previously served the Cherokee Nation as secretary of natural resources from 2015 to 2019 and most recently as attorney general for the tribe from 2019 to 2023. She is currently a lawyer in private practice.

Her other work experience includes being an assistant attorney general from 2004 to 2014, deputy attorney general from 2014 to 2015 and special assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma from 2014 to 2015.

Hill received her juris doctor degree from the University of Tulsa in 2003 and her bachelors from Northeastern State University in 2000.

The National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund have issued their support for Hill.

“Sara Hill will bring unparalleled experience in law and policy to our justice system. NCAI urges the swift confirmation of Ms. Hill as the nomination moves before the U.S. Senate,” Larry Wright Jr, executive director at the National Congress of American Indians, said in a press release.

Native American Rights Fund Executive Director John Echohawk said Hill has a “strong history of public service and possesses excellent qualifications to be a federal judge.”

Additionally, Shanlyn Park, Native Hawaiian, was nominated by U.S. Sens. Mazie K. Hirono and Brian Schatz to be a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawai’i

Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter

The National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund and the National Native American Bar Association have expressed their support of Park’s nomination to Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Lindsay Graham, ranking member on the committee.

“Judge Park is highly qualified for a federal judgeship. She is an experienced judge and before her appointment to the state court where she currently serves, she was an exceptionally accomplished litigator with experience litigating in state and federal courts, on complex criminal and civil matters, in private practice and in public service as a federal prosecutor,” the press release states.

If appointed and confirmed, Park would be the first Native Hawaiian woman federal judge in Hawaiʻi.

Park and fellow nominee Micah Smith went before the senate judiciary committee on Oct. 4.

Park’s prior work experience includes being a law clerk for Judge Francis I. Yamashita, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of Hawai’i from 1995 to 1996; working at a private practice at Hisaka Stone & Goto from 1996 to 1997; an assistant federal public defender in the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Hawai’i from 1997 to 2017; work at the the Honolulu law firms McCorriston Miller Mukai MacKinnon, L.L.P. and Gallagher Kane Amai & Reyes from 2017 to 2021. She currently serves as a state court judge on the First Circuit Court on Oahu.

Hill received her juris doctor from the University of Hawai’i William S. Richardson School of Law in 1995 and her bachelors of arts from Chaminade University of Honolulu in 1991.

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter

How climate science won in the Montana youth climate case

“Every additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries,” the decision reads. Striking down laws that keep state agencies from considering emissions, Seeley decided, has “significant health benefits” for the children and young adults suing their government. In response, the plaintiffs expressed elation, joy and disbelief. “We are heard!” Kian Tanner said in a statement.

“We are heard!”

Seeley walked through her reasoning for the decision in a 103-page ruling, which affirmed that climate is a “part of the environmental life-support system” guaranteed by the Montana Constitution. She agreed that the harm caused by climate change is significant — hurting the plaintiffs’ mental and physical health, limiting their access to traditional food sources and threatening family ranching operations, among other things — and that it is linked to state policies. “It was better than hoped for,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

The decision reads as a lesson in the “overwhelming scientific consensus” of climate change. Seeley points out that state’s leadership has known about the dangerous impacts of climate change for at least the last 30 years. She also notes that ecosystems are interconnected, and that treating Montana’s actions in a vacuum is not scientifically supported. The findings spend numerous pages discussing youth’s unique vulnerability to climate change and its impacts, as well as how climate change is already impacting Montana’s environment and economy. In a statement, Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm which led this and other trailblazing youth climate cases, said it believes that these facts “set forth critical evidentiary and legal precedent for the right of youth to a safe climate.” 

Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023 for the first day of hearings in the trial.
Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record


By considering climate change’s impacts when approving or denying permits for fossil fuel activities, including coal and natural gas-powered energy plants, coal mining and oil and gas refineries, Seeley wrote, the state can safeguard its citizens’ constitutional rights. The ruling notes that this is possible, because it’s technically and economically feasible to replace the majority of Montana’s fossil fuel energy by 2030. 

The immediate direct ramifications in Montana, though, are “extremely narrow,” Gerrard said. The ruling requires the state to consider climate change when making energy decisions — but agencies could simply consider it and move forward with projects anyway. “The much greater significance is that we now have a ruling that affirms climate science after a trial and says that where there is a constitutional right to a clean environment, that can have consequences on climate change,” he said.

The complaint, led by Our Children’s Trust, focused on the Montana Environmental Protection Act, or MEPA, as well as two laws limiting the state’s consideration of climate change passed by the Montana Legislature this spring. MEPA established a process to assess the environmental consequences of state actions but has been repeatedly limited in scope. HB 971 narrowed its purview again this year by prohibiting state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions; SB 557 contained similar restrictions, stating that concerns about emissions could not stop or delay permitting.

Lead plaintiff Rikki Held listens to testimony during a hearing in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in June.
Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record

The state has approved or expanded numerous large-scale projects, including coal mines and gas-fired power plants, in recent years without including climate impacts in its analysis. The ruling argues that emissions from these and other projects in Montana are “nationally and globally significant,” measured by both local effects and their contribution to global climate change.

“More rulings like this will certainly come.”

Montana’s unique constitution provided the backbone for the legal challenge. It’s one of six states — and the only one in the West — with constitutionally based environmental protections. The Held v. Montana ruling, experts say, underscores the importance of having similar constitutional environmental protections for this particular strategy to work. “This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate,” said Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and the executive director of Our Children’s Trust, in a statement. “More rulings like this will certainly come.”

Youth climate cases are set to continue into next year, with trials slated for the federal Juliana v. United States and state Navahine F. v. Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation cases, both led by lawyers with Our Children’s Trust. Hawai‘i already has environmental protections in its constitution. There’s also a push to add Montana-esque environmental protections, so-called “green amendments,” to other state constitutions — including Nevada’s.

In Montana, the legal process is likely to continue. The state attorney general’s office said it would appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, with a spokesperson telling The Flathead Beacon it was “absurd.”

Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in June for the final day of the trial.
Thom Bridge/Helena Independent Record

Kylie Mohr is a correspondent covering wildfire for High Country News. She writes from Montana. Email her at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy

Judge rules in favor of youth plaintiffs in Montana climate lawsuit

This article is part of a series on the youth-led constitutional climate change lawsuit Held v. Montana. The rest of the series can be read at This project is produced by the Flathead Beacon newsroom, in collaboration with Montana Free Press, and is supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship.

A Montana district judge on Monday issued a ruling in the nation’s first constitutional climate change trial declaring the youth plaintiffs have a “fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment” while revoking two Montana statutes. The state attorney general’s office said it will appeal the ruling.

This story also appeared in Flathead Beacon

The 103-page order by Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Kathy Seeley comes two months after the landmark Held v. Montana trial took place in Helena, and explicitly states that Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions are “proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment, and harm and injury to the youth plaintiffs.” It also rolls back two laws enacted by Montana’s Republican-led Legislature this year, House Bill 971 and Senate Bill 557, which made changes to the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).

“Plaintiffs have proven that as children and youth, they are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts,” the order states. “The Defendants have the authority under the statues by which they operate to protect Montana’s environment and natural resources, protect the health and safety of Montana’s youth, and alleviate and avoid climate impacts by limiting fossil fuel activities that occur in Montana when the MEPA analysis shows that those activities are resulting in degradation or other harms which violate the Montana Constitution,” the order continues.

Plaintiff’s attorney Roger Sullivan questions a witness during a hearing in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind to reach trial, was filed by 16 youth plaintiffs from across Montana who alleged the state violated their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by promoting the fossil fuel industry and exacerbating climate change.

“As youth, we are exposed to a lot of knowledge about climate change. We can’t keep passing it on to the next generation when we’re being told about all the impacts that are already happening,” Rikki Held, the suit’s lead plaintiff, told the Flathead Beacon before the trial. “In some ways, our generation feels a lot of pressure, kind of a burden, to make something happen because it’s our lives that are at risk.”

The complaint focused on a provision in MEPA that prohibits state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts while conducting environmental reviews.

Seeley’s ruling declared that portion of MEPA unconstitutional, as well as a section enacted by SB 557 requiring groups challenging state permitting actions to post a bond before filing a lawsuit and to seek a preliminary injunction, a tough-to-meet legal standard that would immediately halt a project.

Judge Kathy Seeley speaks during a hearing in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023.

“We’re very pleased with the ruling,” Roger Sullivan, a Kalispell-based attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Beacon Monday. “It is stunning in its scope, and I think that the message from the judicial branch is very clear. The task will now be for the executive branch of our state government and the Legislature to abide by this order.”

In a statement, Julia Olson, executive director of the Oregon-based law firm Our Children’s Trust, which brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, called the ruling a “huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate.”

“For the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people,” Olson said in a prepared statement. “As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos.”

Olson said the ruling provides an evidentiary record and legal precedent that will influence future climate-related lawsuits. The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law currently tracks 2,424 climate-change related legal cases in the world, 1,591 of which are filed in U.S. jurisdictions, including two upcoming Our Children’s Trust trials. Next summer, a youth-led climate case against the Hawaii Department of Transportation will proceed to trial, while a federal judge ruled earlier this summer that Juliana v. United States is also cleared for trial.

Attorneys with the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), which served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said Seeley’s ruling “underscores the reality that Montana’s government is actively working to undermine our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.”

“For the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people.”

Our Children’s Trust Executive Director Julia Olson

“Judge Seeley’s decision comes at a time when we’re seeing the impacts of climate change accelerate — from low streamflows and lake levels to unprecedented heat waves, floods, and wildfires,” according to a prepared statement by Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with WELC. “These are the climate realities the youth plaintiffs and expert witnesses told us about on the stand, while the state disclaimed any responsibility and dismissed them. We’re relieved that the court recognized that these youth plaintiffs are already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis, as well as the dangers threatening their future if the state doesn’t take meaningful action to address it.”

Much of the landmark trial that unfolded over seven days in June centered on the connection between Montana’s warming climate and the harm alleged by the plaintiffs, who testified that their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” has been violated by the state’s practice of promoting and permitting the fossil fuel industry, thereby contributing to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs spent five days of the trial calling on expert witnesses — including leading climate scientists, glaciologists, policy experts and mental health professionals — to describe the harms the plaintiffs say they have suffered because of Montana’s promotion and permitting of the fossil fuel industry. Ten of the young plaintiffs, ranging in age from 14 to 22, also took the stand to describe how their quality of life has been compromised by both the real-time effects of climate change and its impending impacts.

The state, meanwhile, disputed the evidence that burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change in a meaningful way, and denied that Montana’s increasingly severe wildland fire seasons and drought are linked to its legacy of supporting fossil-fuel burning projects reliant on coal, oil and gas.

The entirety of the state’s defense spanned less than one full day of trial, compared to the five days during which plaintiffs’ attorneys called witnesses. The defense called just one expert witness, an economist, whose testimony Seeley said “was not well-supported, contained errors, and was not given weight by the Court.”

Seeley’s ruling states that Montana’s constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment includes climate, and affirms the connection between greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and harm to Montana’s youth.

The court also found that allowing the state to consider climate change in permitting questions “would provide the clear information needed to conform their decision-making to the best science and their constitutional duties and constraints and give them the necessary information to deny permits for fossil fuel activities when inconsistent with protecting Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”

Emily Flower, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, called the ruling “absurd” and described the trial as a “tax-payer funded publicity stunt” in a statement. “The State will appeal,” she said. 

The post Judge rules in favor of youth plaintiffs in Montana climate lawsuit appeared first on Montana Free Press.

Tribes, state look to improve Wyoming’s Indigenous child custody laws

A legislative task force is considering ways to improve a law designed to keep Indigenous children connected to their families, communities and cultures amid custody disputes.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which set federal standards for custody proceedings involving children from federally recognized tribes, was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Haaland v. Brackeen.

Uncertain how the high court would rule, the Wyoming Legislature enacted a mirror version of the federal law during the 2023 session in the event federal protections dissolved.

That state law is set to sunset in 2027, so the Legislature formed a task force to consider more permanent solutions. The panel met publicly for the first time on July 12. With the federal law now on sure footing, the committee focused instead on closing legal gaps that still lead to kids entering state or other non-tribal custody. The panel also considered enhancements that have been successful in other states.

Juvenile delinquency and other instances of state custody 

Before Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, more than a third of Indigenous children had been removed from their homes and placed in non-Indian homes or institutional settings. Seeking to end this systematic disruption of Native American families, the law gave preference to tribes when an Indigenous child is involved in a custody proceeding pertaining to child-welfare issues such as adoption, abuse and neglect.

In simple terms, it established a priority for placing children with, first, a member of an Indigenous child’s extended family. If that’s not an option, the child would next go to another member of their tribe, or if that’s not possible, a different tribe.

To achieve that end, the law requires the agency handling proceedings for an issue such as neglect to notify the relevant tribe so its members can either participate or transfer the case to their tribal court.

As it stands, the federal law only applies in cases involving adoption, abuse or neglect. For most of the meeting, the panel debated a provision in state law that also subjects juvenile delinquency cases to the family- and Indigenous-first priority.

That provision requires tribes be notified of court proceedings in delinquency cases involving their children, in the event they want to transfer the issue to their tribal courts or have a say in the proceedings. Federal law makes no such requirements.

This inconsistency resulted from an oversight while drafting the legislation and should be removed, said Korin Schmidt, director for the Wyoming Department of Family Services and a member of the panel.

“We think it was just a matter of how quickly this all came about,” Schmidt said.

But other task force members believe its inclusion can strengthen tribal say in any question of state custody.

Delinquency resulting in juvenile incarceration is no small consideration in Wyoming, as the state has one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the country.

A census in 2019 revealed that Indigenous children were incarcerated at a greater rate in Wyoming than any kids of any other ethnic or racial groups — and at a rate four times higher than their white peers.

Some of the juvenile placements can last for years, so the desire for tribal oversight makes sense, said task force co-chairman Rep. LLoyd Larsen (R-Lander).

There is already a blueprint for tribal involvement in delinquency cases in Fremont County and Hot Springs counties, home to the Wind River Reservation, where special contracts allow for close interaction between tribal governments and district courts.

In both counties, all child welfare cases are directly transferred to the Northern Arapaho or Eastern Shoshone family services departments rather than the state agency.

Further, juvenile delinquency cases can also then be transferred to internal tribal courts if the tribe requests to do so.

That policy does not, however, apply statewide.

“We have a great working relationship with Fremont County and Hot Springs County, however, we need to expand that,” said Karen Returns to War, the co-chair of the Northern Arapaho Business Council.

“Hopefully, the rest of the counties in the state of Wyoming are going to abide by the same qualifications, and the tribes will have more say regarding the placement of our children,” Returns to War said.

Rep. LLoyd Larsen (R-Lander), at right, consults Jennifer Neely, state ICWA coordinator and tribal liaison from the Department of Family Services, during the first ICWA task force meeting on July 12, 2023. (Lia Salvatierra/WyoFile).

The question of state custody over child placement also emerges in the case of the safe haven law, applied when a child is relinquished after birth, said Jennifer Neely, the state ICWA coordinator and tribal liaison from the Department of Family Services.

“The hope is, perhaps while we’re evaluating the ICWA statute and potential that maybe we could also use this opportunity to enhance some of our existing [laws] to support it,” Neely said.

The task force did not reach any conclusions at the July 12 meeting, but plans to bring amendment proposals to the panel’s next gathering.

Other states

Since Congress passed the law more than four decades ago, other states have made their own changes. Wyoming is considering incorporating some of them.

Clare Johnson, attorney for the Northern Arapaho Business Council, proposed adopting two changes made by the state of Washington. Both would strengthen the abilities of tribal attorneys during proceedings tied to the law.

One proposed amendment would allow tribes to define terms for custody placement beyond the federally applied standards, said Johnson, citing the consideration of geography as one example.

She also raised the issue of allowing tribal attorneys to practice across state lines, even where they are not licensed, for the purpose of cases involving the law.

“It saves the tribe a lot of money,” Johnson said. “Instead of having to find local counsel, pay pro hoc fees, I can be admitted solely to represent the tribe for the purpose of an ICWA case.”

This provision in Washington and Nebraska has permitted Johnson to litigate such cases there.

Beyond Wyoming

If the task force elects to clarify and strengthen the application of the Indian Child Welfare Act, its decision extends beyond the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes to affect all federal tribes represented in the state.

For example, if the state law’s delinquency inclusion holds, Wyoming will be required to notify a tribe — whether, say, in Arizona or North Carolina – whose child is brought before a Wyoming court.

It will be important to streamline the process of notifying tribes in states where the law applies differently, Neely said.

The task force is next expected to meet in late August or early September.

The post Tribes, state look to improve Wyoming’s Indigenous child custody laws appeared first on WyoFile.

A Black Man Was Elected Mayor in Rural Alabama, but the White Town Leaders Won’t Let Him Serve

NEWBERN, Ala. — There’s a power struggle in Newbern, Alabama, and the rural town’s first Black mayor is at war with the previous administration who he says locked him out of Town Hall. After years of racist harassment and intimidation, Patrick Braxton is fed up, and in a federal civil rights lawsuit he is accusing […]

The post A Black Man Was Elected Mayor in Rural Alabama, but the White Town Leaders Won’t Let Him Serve appeared first on Capital B.

Judge dismisses suit over sales tax, tribe agrees

A federal judge in May dismissed the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe’s lawsuit against the state over the collection of an online sales tax after the state informed the tribe of the existing tax reimbursement process.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle in December, the tribe argued tribal members should be exempt from the collection of 6.5 percent sales tax in online purchases, in addition to exemptions for in-person purchases on the reservation.

In June, Jack Fiander, the tribe’s general counsel, said the lawsuit was rendered “unnecessary” upon further investigation. There is an existing process for reimbursement from the state, and tribal members can notify online retailers of their tribal status before the payment is made and have the tax removed.

“The process already existed, but it seems to me ideally it should have been on the state to send out a notice to various online retailers that tribes at these locations are tax exempt,” Fiander said.

The federal law exempting enrolled tribal citizens from paying sales tax states the goods are exempt if “delivered to or the sale is made in the tribe or enrolled tribal member’s Indian country.”

Fiander argued that those requirements created an unnecessary hardship due to the remoteness of the 315-citizen tribe.

Located 30 miles up Highway 530, the reservation is near only a handful of brick-and-mortar retailers. The closest town is Darrington with a population of 1,400. Forcing members to pay for a 100-mile round trip delivery of an item from Seattle, Fiander explained, was not worth the tax exemption.

The suit also alleged the sales tax was a form of discrimination against the tribe. Tribal Council Chairman Nino Maltos Jr. called the tax exemption a sovereignty issue.

But in February, John Ryser, then-acting director of the state Department of Revenue, filed a motion to dismiss the case.

In an 18-page document, Ryser argued the tribe failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted. The motion also outlined the mechanism already available to refund the sales tax and explained how to work directly with online vendors to remove the tax preemptively.

Ryser’s motion to dismiss argued the “Tribe has failed to allege facts or law that support a preemption claim for declaratory or injunctive relief.” Ryser’s motion also stated the tribe’s allegations are “insufficient” to show intentional discrimination based on race, as the lawsuit alleged.

In May, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez tossed the case, stating the tribe failed to properly state a claim.

With the case dismissed, Fiander said the tribe plans to “work directly with online vendors” in the future.

“The problem with the refund policy is you have to wait,” Fiander said. “The easiest way to (remove the sales tax) will be between the consumer and retailer — to contact the internet seller and provide them proper documentation and tribal ID.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Revenue told the Herald that the department “appreciates the court’s decision and is awaiting further developments, if any, in the case.”

Kayla J. Dunn: 425-339-3449;; Twitter: @KaylaJ_Dunn.

This article was published via AP Storyshare. 

The post Judge dismisses suit over sales tax, tribe agrees appeared first on Buffalo’s Fire.

Hawaii’s Parole Board Is The Most Powerful In The Country. That May Change

The paroling authority sets the minimum terms that inmates must serve before they can be released from prison, a task that other states assign to judges.

In Eastern Washington, Victims Seeking Protection Steer Clear Of A Judge Accused Of Domestic Violence Himself

Former Athens housing authority director sentenced for multi-million dollar theft

Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders presents to visiting judge Daniel Hogan, while Jodi Rickard sits with her attorney, K. Robert Toy. Photo by Dani Kington.
Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders presents to visiting judge Daniel Hogan, while Jodi Rickard sits with her attorney, K. Robert Toy. Photo by Dani Kington.

ATHENS, Ohio — Former Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority Director Jodi Rickard pleaded guilty to seven felony charges on Tuesday as part of a deal with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office.

Rickard was indicted in February on charges related to her multi-million dollar theft from AMHA. Visiting Judge Daniel Hogan sentenced Rickard to eight to 12 years in prison and ordered her to pay more than $2.3 million in restitution. She will be eligible for judicial release after five years and will spend five years on parole once she is released.

AMHA’s attorney David Mott said at the hearing, “​​This was not just a simple theft of taxpayer funds — these were funds intended to provide housing to low income residents of the county. So, this was essentially a theft of decent housing from our most vulnerable neighbors.” 

Matthew R. Eiselstein, director of communications for the Ohio Auditor of State’s office, said, “We’re proud of the efforts of our [Special Investigations Unit] team and appreciate the efforts of Prosecutor [Keller] Blackburn’s office in bringing this crime to a conclusion.”

Rickard initially pleaded not guilty to all charges, but changed her plea as part of a deal with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. Hogan sentenced Rickard according to the terms described in the agreement. 

At the hearing, Rickard’s attorney, K. Robert Toy, agreed with Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders that evidence obtained in the case demonstrates Rickard’s guilt. 

“She is remorseful, and that is something that is sincere,” Toy said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people — usually with much smaller amounts it happens: They take a little bit, they intend to pay it back, and then they take a little more, and they intend to pay that back, and they don’t. And then it snowballed into the tremendous amount that we’re dealing with here today.” 

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn agreed. “What she did was reprehensible and wrong, but her actions after she got caught were among the best that we’ve experienced,” he said, adding that this is reflected in the plea agreement. 

In addition to prison time, the plea agreement specified that Rickard will pay $2,325,395.12 in restitution to AMHA. Saunders said that amount is based upon the Ohio Auditor of State’s investigation into Rickard’s theft, though AMHA acting director Stan Popp told the Independent the state investigation remains ongoing.

AMHA’s last released audit indicates the housing authority had $6.51 million in revenue in 2020 to provide housing for low-income residents of Athens County. 

Popp reiterated the agency’s claim that “AMHA has not experienced any reduction in the services it provides as a result of [Rickard’s] theft. However, the loss of funds has slowed AMHA’s ability to expand its services.”

When Rickard was indicted in February, investigators had identified at least $1.5 million in theft from the organization since 2015. Blackburn told the Independent at the time he believed the total amount Rickard stole was substantially greater. 

In order to pay the full amount of her restitution, Rickard forfeited 50% of assets in bank accounts held jointly with her husband; all bank accounts held by her alone; all money in her Ohio Public Employee Retirement System account and in her deferred compensation account; and all material goods obtained with stolen money.

Blackburn said it is unclear exactly how much money Rickard has in these accounts, but estimated the total amount at around $200,000. Rickard will have to pay the full restitution amount ordered based on her ability, he said.

Toy said, “She is giving up everything that she has.”

“Any restitution of funds AMHA receives will be reinvested into its mission,” Popp said. “Until an exact amount is known, AMHA is not able to be more specific.”

Popp said Rickard was not bonded, and while AMHA’s insurance may or may not cover any of the loss, the housing authority’s insurance policy limit is $250,000. 

“AMHA will never be made whole on the full loss,” Popp said.

Rickard also agreed to forfeit her Albany home and property as part of the agreement. Blackburn said that the home will be forfeited to law enforcement, with proceeds designated to pay for law enforcement investigation. Blackburn said the funding could be used to pay for the state auditor’s investigation. He added that he does not want his office to take in funding from the home’s sale and said he will seek an alternative arrangement with the court.

Rickard’s husband agreed that the property he shared with Rickard and the funding in joint bank accounts was subject to forfeiture. He was not required to accept these terms by law, and he was not indicted in the case.

“He’s going to be suffering because of her actions, and he is an unknowing beneficiary of her actions,” Toy said. 

Toy described Rickard’s family as among the victims of Rickard’s theft from AMHA.

“It’s brought huge consequences for her family and herself — for herself justified, and for her family, they’ve victims of this too, and they understand that, and they forgive her,” Toy said.

Rickard used AMHA funds to pay personal credit card debts as well as her mortgage, according to a February press release from the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. Rickard’s credit card payments showed charges for large sums spent on vacations and the installation of an in-ground pool, the release said.

Rickard allegedly stole large sums of money from AMHA’s General Fund, which has since been closed, and falsified financial reports. Search warrant documents obtained by the Independent paint a picture of highly unusual circumstances that led to the eventual discovery of Rickard’s theft, including an audit related to a 2022 office fire, a death in Rickard’s family which prompted her to take leave and an anonymous tip.

Eiselstein, with the state auditor’s office, said, “Criminals can certainly be clever and when they have the keys to the store, they can be hard to catch. A lack of fiscal controls enabled Jodi Rickard to obfuscate her criminal actions for years. As the sole bookkeeper operating under little oversight, Rickard was able to conceal her actions by falsifying documents and altering transaction records. Previous audits had identified weaknesses in financial reporting and oversight by management, but these recommendations were never implemented which allowed her to continue her grift against the taxpayers of Athens County for years.”

According to an affidavit included in the December 2022 search warrants served on AMHA, Rickard’s activity was successfully concealed for many years in part through “a lack of Board monitoring” and “went undetected by the Board due to lack of reviews and monitoring.” The affidavit alleges the board saw only summary income statements and performed no review of bank accounts or reconciliations.

Former board chair Mary Nally recently stepped down from the position after moving to Meigs County, she said. Gregg Andrews, a local realtor and Hocking Athens Perry Community Action’s longtime Housing and Community Development Director, now serves as board chair, Popp said.

The housing authority has taken steps to address the issues which led to Rickard’s theft, including changes to its financial processes.

Athens County Court of Common Pleas Judge George McCarthy presided over Rickard’s criminal case until May 18, after which Hogan took over as judge, according to Bre Woods, who works in McCarthy’s office. The court initially requested a visiting judge on Feb. 14, the day following Rickard’s indictment, Woods said.

Woods said the court sought a visiting judge because both McCarthy and Judge Patrick Lang appoint members to AMHA’s board, which was considered a conflict.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect comments from the Ohio Auditor of State’s office.

The post Former Athens housing authority director sentenced for multi-million dollar theft appeared first on Athens County Independent.

EPS lawsuits: Vape search, bathroom fight, COVID-19 quarantine policy

Edmond Public Schools is the defendant in three lawsuits that have garnered substantial media attention. One plaintiff alleges her daughter was inappropriately searched by a Heartland Middle School principal for suspicion of possessing a vape. Another parent recently sued the district after her daughter was involved in a fight with a transgender student in the […]

The post EPS lawsuits: Vape search, bathroom fight, COVID-19 quarantine policy appeared first on NonDoc.