o this day, Bobby Newell says his convictions for corruption and conspiracy to misapply federal funds were orchestrated by his successor to the Indian Township governorship, William “Billy” Nicholas, and the current governor, Joseph Socobasin.
“They knew I was politically savvy and they wanted to get rid of me, so they went and solicited help from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a senator’s office, and I got a lynch mob come after that,” says Newell, who served 46 months in prison. “Billy Nicholas was involved in all of it, and Joe Socobasin, who was my lieutenant governor for four years.”
True or not, Nicholas was certainly a major beneficiary of Newell’s downfall.
Nicholas, who defeated Newell in the 2006 election, was a colorful, charismatic figure with a checkered past.
Billy and his brothers – including current council member Leslie Nicholas and current Indian Township Police Chief Alex Nicholas – spent their early years in southern Maine, moving with their parents to the reservation after the tribe won federal recognition. Their father, Carl, served as lieutenant governor in the 1990s, and his great-uncle, Joseph Nicholas, was the first tribal representative to the Legislature.
Billy and Alex trained in law enforcement and were serving together as tribal police officers in 1989, the year the two made the newspapers for their role in a physical confrontation with tribal game wardens. The Nicholas brothers and two wardens were all suspended from their jobs after the incident, which occurred after they responded to a call from a policeman in Princeton whose cruiser had struck a deer. No further details were disclosed.
In 1997, Billy – by then serving as a tribal game warden himself – applied to join the Maine State Police. He passed the written and oral exams but failed a background check. Billy sued, alleging racial discrimination, but was unsuccessful. His effort to join the Maine Warden Service was also unsuccessful.
Bill Randall, a non-Passamaquoddy hired as a tribal fish and wildlife consultant, says he played a role in torpedoing Nicholas’ bid to become a Maine warden by relating incidents of heavy-handed behavior toward non-tribal hunters transiting tribal lands.
“He was openly prejudiced and hated white people so badly that one morning (in October 1999) on the South Branch Road north of Jackman he falsely arrested a white father and son for night hunting,” Randall said in a written statement to the Press Herald. Randall said he and a tribal game warden were able to get the charges dismissed, for which they both faced “threats of violence” from Nicholas.
Billy Nicholas declined multiple interview requests for this story.
icholas became a rising figure in the tribal warden service and tribal politics. He joined the tribal council in 2002, the same year Newell became governor, and remained there until this spring, when he suddenly resigned. In the Newell administration, he became the reservation’s chief game warden, a position he holds again today.
During Bobby Newell’s troubled final tenure as governor, Billy Nicholas also worked with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency coordinating a network of confidential informants, who would buy drugs on both reservations and report who was selling. He also benefited from Newell’s cavalier spending of tribal funds.
At one point, Nicholas testified at Newell’s trial, his brand new pickup truck stopped working. The following week, one of his informants told him a drug counselor at the health clinic was paying people to vandalize his property. He testified that he dropped a lawsuit he was in the process of filing against the counselor after a meeting in Gov. Newell’s office in which he was promised a check to cover the damage.
A printout of tribal government disbursements obtained by the Press Herald shows that in the final two years of Newell’s administation, Nicholas was the beneficiary of tens of thousands of dollars in reimbursements, including “meeting fees,” “donations,” “general assistance” and “honorarium” – all above and beyond his salary and benefits. The payments, which included $191 and $240 expenditures listed on the ledger as “Cole” – the name of one of Billy’s children – and $4,120 as an “honorarium” – totaled $49,965.51.
It wasn’t Nicholas’ only source of extra income.
In the fall of 2005, tribal auditor Ronald H. Smith of Buxton began questioning peculiar goings-on with a new bank account administered by Nicholas in his role as chief game warden. This so-called “Bear Account,” which was intended to collect fees from outside bear hunters and their guides who paid to hunt on tribal land, was supposed to be used to support the warden service’s core activities.
Instead, Smith warned tribal authorities in a letter that November, the account appeared to be used for some other, unauthorized purpose, with more than $100,000 in federal funds being transferred into the account.
Nicholas had refused to answer Smith’s questions about the account, the auditor informed tribal officials, leading Smith to “recommend all activity on this account be frozen immediately.”
Smith testified at Newell’s trial that, at a subsequent tribal council meeting, Nicholas was so angry about the scrutiny on the Bear Account that he demanded Smith be fired then and there. Nobody seconded his motion at the meeting.
In 2007, after Nicholas became governor, the Indian Township government allegedly stopped paying the auditor for his work. Smith’s firm won a $91,900 court judgment against the reservation government for non-payment for auditing services performed on the fiscal 2005 books and other accounts. (Smith, whose firm currently audits Pleasant Point’s accounts, declined to be interviewed for these stories.)
A printout of Bear Account disbursements for fiscal year 2005 obtained by the Press Herald show more than $1,000 in plumbing and heating repair payments to Billy’s brother (and fellow council member), Leslie Nicholas; a $4,500 “Workfare” advance to Billy’s wife, Lucy; and $250 to $500 Christmas bonuses for everyone in the department, including $500 for Billy himself.
When Pleasant Point Chief Melvin Francis died in a January 2006 car crash, Billy and three other wardens stood as an honor guard around his body. Billy collected $1,658.32 from the Bear Account for his trouble and the cost of travel and meals in Pleasant Point, 45 miles away. His other wardens received between $735.75 and $982.23 apiece.
“I was surprised to see they paid themselves to be in the law enforcement honor guard for Melvin Francis,” says Ed Bassett, a councilor at Pleasant Point who learned of the reimbursements later. “I guess they considered it work.”
By the time Billy Nicholas assumed the governorship, however, the tribe’s finances had been sucked nearly dry.
Nicholas himself described the scene in the closing months of Newell’s administration, when the council had stripped the governor of his authority to hand out general assistance payments. “Soon the elders, people that were on methadone, people that were receiving in the community … they were giving us a hard time,” he testified at Newell’s trial. They were saying “that it’s not right, they’re going to starve, they’re going to go without, you name it. I mean it was – it was pretty hectic.”
Layoffs followed as the new governor and council tried to get the tribe’s fiscal house back in order. But it wouldn’t be long before questionable practices began cropping up again.
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:
Tribal leaders have ‘become our oppressors’