Attorney General Keith Ellison has asked a federal court to shut down the Minnesota lending operations of companies owned by a Montana Indian tribe.
The three payday lenders have made thousands of online loans to Minnesota consumers carrying interest rates between 474% and 795%, allegedly violating several state and federal laws, Ellison's office said in a suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
"These businesses have been engaging in the worst kind of predatory lending and I'm glad to bring this lawsuit to stop the harm they are causing and help people afford their lives," Ellison said in a news release.
Ellison said the lenders are breaking Minnesota laws including for usury, consumer fraud and deceptive trade.
The lending companies are operated by Island Mountain Development Group, a company in Hays, Mont., owned by the Fort Belknap Indian Community. Defendants named in Ellison's suit are Evan Azure and Geno LeValdo, respectively CEO and chairman of Island Mountain.
The defendants shield themselves from responsibility for their allegedly illegal loans by citing the sovereignty of the Fort Belknap community, a federally recognized tribe, according to the suit.
The sovereign status of the lenders' ultimate owner prevents a suit directly against a tribal entity, Ellison said.
A representative for Island Mountain and the defendants declined to comment.
The suit involves three lenders owned by the tribe: Bright Lending, Green Trust Cash and Target Cash Now.
"They represent to consumers in Minnesota that the out-of-state status of the tribal owner and operation of tribal law allows them to market and demand payment on usurious loans, avoid compliance with Minnesota law, and leave customers with no redress or ability to assert legal rights in court," the suit claims.
Payday loans are short-term, unsecured loans that usually run from $100 to $1,500. They can provide vital short-term funding for those with weak credit histories, but they carry high interest rates and can trap consumers in an expensive cycle of debt repayment.
Many Minnesota consumers have complained to the Attorney General's Office, the Better Business Bureau and other entities about the Fort Belknap lenders — particularly regarding high interest rates and large repayments.
For instance, "JB of Sauk Rapids" reported she took out a $500 loan from Bright Lending, but she was charged "extremely high interest" and ended up paying back $2,244, the suit said. "DH of Minneapolis" reported that she was charged $1,374 in interest on a $650 loan she took out from Bright.
Several tribes throughout the country — though apparently none in Minnesota — run payday-lending operations, usually financed by non-tribal financial companies.
Federal courts are rife with consumer lawsuits involving tribal lenders. Many of those suits claim that tribal lenders are fronts for non-Indian businesses who want to take advantage of tribal sovereignty, which limits litigation against tribal entities.
However, suits involving tribal lenders by state attorneys general are not common.
Ellison's civil suit claims the Fort Belknap lending operations have violated five Minnesota statutes. The suit also alleges violations of two federal laws, including the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Ellison's office is asking for an injunction to stop the marketing, issuing and collection of allegedly illegal loans made by the Fort Belknap-affiliated lenders.
The defendants named in the case, Azure and LeValdo, have been in their positions with Island Mountain Development Group only since early 2023. In January, the Fort Belknap Tribal Council ousted Island Mountain's board and launched an investigation into fraud allegations, according to a report by the Daily Montanan.
In September, Island Mountain Development Group sued the group's longtime lawyer in federal court in Montana, alleging that she and her law firm — a large multinational outfit — attempted to control the tribal group for their own financial benefit.
The Fort Belknap community consists of the Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) and Assiniboine (Nakoda) tribes.