A local biologist pleaded guilty today to a single federal count of conspiring to embezzle funds from an Indian tribal organization stemming from the bilking of nearly $1 million in federal funds from the Yurok Tribe over a three-year period beginning in 2007, tribal spokesman Matt Mais confirmed.
According to court documents, Mad River Biologists founder Ron LeValley conspired with former Yurok Tribe Forestry Director Roland Raymond to steal the funds through a complex scheme fake and inflated invoices and payments for northern spotted owl survey work that Mad River Biologists never performed. Last month, a judge sentenced Raymond — who also pleaded guilty to the single conspiracy count — to serve 36 months in federal prison for the grift.
LeValley is scheduled to be sentenced May 20. The terms of his plea agreement had not been made public as of this afternoon.
Raymond faced a maximum of five years in prison, but received a lesser sentence, in part, due to his cooperation with a federal investigation that led to LeValley’s being charged in the case. Raymond, whose attorney claimed he committed the theft to support drug and gambling addictions, was also ordered to repay $852,000 that he stole from the tribe.
According to court documents in the case, Mad River Biologists submitted more than 75 false invoices between 2007 and 2010. Under the scheme, Raymond would then cut checks from the tribe and LeValley would funnel the money back to him, less 20 percent taken off the top.
The survey work that was never done was primarily looking for habitats for the federally endangered northern spotted owl to determine what tribal properties could be logged without harming owl populations. It’s unclear whether Raymond and LeValley’s conspiracy affected timber harvest plans or led to the destruction of potential owl habitats.
In his plea agreement, Raymond said he initially told LeValley that the scheme was intended to provide Raymond with money to pay the tribe’s forest crews, though the stolen funds were never used to that end.
In addition to having founded Mad River Biologists in Arcata, LeValley is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and birder, and was a member of the Marine Life Protection Act science advisory team for the North Coast. He lives in Mendocino County.
According to court records in his case, prior to today's change of plea hearing, a federal judge granted a request from LeValley modifying the terms of his bail to allow him to attend an annual Pacific Seabird Group meeting in Juneau, Alaska later this month.
For more information on the case, see past journal coverage here