The Comeback Kid

A political outcast rises again on the Leech Lake Reservation

Politics at Leech Lake have long been rife with accusations of graft and corruption, and LaRose has been on both the receiving and giving ends. In his removal hearing, his opponents alleged that he funneled emergency assistance funds to friends and relatives. Mike Garbow, the tribal attorney and a LaRose foe, says that authorities are only now learning the extent of the abuse of the program. Between October 2002 and June 2004, according to Garbow, the band paid out approximately $3.7 million dollars in emergency assistance. Four members of one family, Garbow says, received $16,000 for car repairs over a four-month period. "The standing orders seem to have been, 'Go ahead and dole it,'" Garbow alleges. "There seems to be very little documentation that Archie authorized it. But it stinks and it makes you sick."

LaRose has become accustomed to deflecting such charges. "At the removal hearing, they said I gave away too much. I helped the people by giving away hotel rooms for wakes and funerals. I lent cars from the motor pool so people could go to the doctor. What's wrong with that? It's the people's dollar. That's why I wasn't stingy with it," he says. "I told the council, 'If you want to take me out for helping the people, so be it. I'll be back.' I still stand good in the people's eyes."

 

Before the fall: Archie LaRose at a Leech Lake band forum last summer
Mike Mosedale
Before the fall: Archie LaRose at a Leech Lake band forum last summer

If nothing else, LaRose knows plenty about whatit's like to be poor. Born at the Cass Lake Indian Hospital in 1971, he spent much of his early childhood at a reservation housing development called Tract 33. With its burned-out trailers, boarded-up houses, and litter-strewn streets, Tract 33 is notorious as one of the most troubled spots on the reservation. Yet LaRose speaks fondly of his childhood days at "Track" and, while he no longer lives there, he still calls it home. "Some people look down on Tract 33, because the majority live in poverty. But it's not as bad as they say. I don't have any fear being at Track, any time of the day or night."

At the age of seven, LaRose found his way to the reservation boxing ring, where he made a name for himself competing in both regional and national tournaments. He credits the sport with keeping him out of trouble with drugs and alcohol. Still, LaRose, like many Leech Lakers of his generation, did eventually run afoul of the law. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault in Cass County Court. As LaRose tells the story, the assault was in retaliation for the burglary of his trailer by a former sparring partner. To this day, he says, it is the only mark on his record.

However, two years later, LaRose and four other Leech Lakers were arrested and charged in connection with a more serious crime: the armed robbery of the Palace Casino, where LaRose once worked. According to news reports at the time, the bandits--who wore ski masks and coveralls to conceal their identities--fled the Palace with about $27,000 in cash and jewelry. The Bingo Bandits, as they were dubbed, were said to have foiled the pursuing sheriff's deputies by placing nail-studded boards along the escape route.

The charges did not stick. After two of the defendants were acquitted in jury trials, the cases against LaRose and the others were dismissed. "There were 130, 140 suspects and leads, and I was just one of them," LaRose now says. "I guess they figured I was a dumb Indian and I would plea-bargain to something I didn't do. So I waited in jail, went through the process, and the judge dismissed the charges." Before that experience, LaRose says he had entertained thoughts of working in law enforcement, maybe as a game warden or a policeman. Afterward, he started thinking about becoming involved in tribal politics.

While raising a family and working as a custodian at the Palace, LaRose made his first run for office. In 1996, he worked on the campaign of Eli Hunt, who was elected tribal chairman. Two years later, LaRose made his first bid for a seat on the tribal council. He lost that race but acquired a serious bug for politics. He ran again two years later, losing by a narrow margin in a rough-and-tumble campaign that featured repeated airings of the allegations about LaRose's supposed involvement in the Palace robbery.

"His involvement with the robbery has been debated over and over, and that probably cost him the election when he ran for district representative," observes Bill Lawrence, publisher and editor of the Native American Press/Ojibwe News and a sometime LaRose supporter. But Lawrence, whose paper ran a series of critical stories and letters about LaRose's background early in his political career, says many band members are now more interested in LaRose's reform agenda than his past. "At this point I don't think the public really cares about the robbery. I think a lot of people really believe in Archie," he says. "They know Archie and his family have been on the bottom rung for a long time, and they know they've had to scrape."

 

As LaRose tells it, the many allegations leveledagainst him--and his removal from office--were simply retaliation for his efforts to open the band's finances to public scrutiny. He claims his enemies oppose him for upsetting the tribal government gravy train. There is little disputing that he came into office with an agenda. After he was elected secretary-treasurer in 2002, LaRose immediately moved to bring in an outside auditor and, immediately thereafter, ran into stiff opposition from the band's then-chairman, Eli Hunt. Frustrated, LaRose and his allies successfully petitioned for a recall vote, which resulted in Hunt's removal from office. After that, LaRose's critics went to the media, telling reporters at Minnesota Public Radio and the Bemidji Pioneer of concerns that a gang called the Native Mob might try to influence the election through violence. That violence, LaRose points out now, never materialized.

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