A former Sitka resident will spend three years on probation and pay back money he embezzled from the nonprofit the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, which he once led.
U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline handed down the sentence on Thursday after 46-year-old Gerald Bigelow pleaded guilty to embezzlement in Anchorage federal court.
The embezzlement nearly ended a four-decade long relationship between a group of Native artists and the National Park Service.
Bigelow was executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center from October 2010 to May 2011. For more than 40 years, the organization has employed Native artists who work in a studio at Sitka National Historical Park, where they teach and demonstrate their art for the public.
That relationship nearly came to an end last spring when the park service launched an investigation into the group’s finances. The park service contributed more than $80,000 to the cultural center in 2011.
Federal prosecutors say Bigelow used the cultural center’s debit card without authorization more than 75 times. They said he stole more than $17,000.
In a statement released Thursday, assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis says Bigelow admitted to making purchases and cash withdrawals for his personal use.
Beistline ordered Bigelow to serve probation and to pay the money back, noting that Bigelow has not been in trouble with the law before, and that he had accepted responsibility for his conduct. Bigelow’s attorney, Rich Curtner, said the sentence was fair.
But the head of the cultural center disagrees. He was hoping for stiffer penalties for a crime he said almost sank his organization completely.
“A lot of the residents in town thought we were done,” said board president Gary Lang. “It’s been pretty tough for the artists not knowing ‘Do I have a job next week?’ It’s been tough for the public. ‘Can we still go down there? What is there at the park? Can we still go down and visit?’”
The answer, Lang says, is yes.
The cultural center and the National Park came to an agreement that let the organization stay on park property. Other organizations, including the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, reached out to the cultural center. There have been changes on the board. Lang says he hopes the park will be able to expand its reach – working more with students in the community and the general public.
“We do a demonstration program in the summer for tourists, but that’s not our primary goal,” Lang said. “Our primary goal is to share the knowledge of our culture, and the carving aspects of it. A lot of teaching.”
Lang says the last year has been a roller-coaster – one that started out with a plummet, not a climb – but that hopefully, in the end, his organization will emerge stronger.