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Complaints prompt probe into BIA education

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) announced on Wednesday that he has requested an investigation into allegations that the Bureau of Indian Affairs reorganization is hurting the education of Indian children.

At an oversight hearing on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said he has received numerous complaints about the reorganization process. The list included forced retirements, unfair firings, nepotism, mismanagement of funds, ethics violations and civil rights violations.

"We have no way of knowing, in the committee, if these accusations have any merit or not and maybe they don't. Maybe some are just disgruntled employees," Campbell said. "But I don't take them lightly."

Campbell noted that he spoke with Aurene Martin, the BIA's principal deputy assistant secretary with direct authority over Indian education, when he first heard about the problems. "She assured me that she would look into it but we're still getting complaints," he recalled.

After discussing the issue with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the vice-chairman of the committee, Campbell said both agreed that a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation is needed. "Anything that hurts our Indian children and prevents them from being [in] a safe and healthy education environment is a great distress to both of us," he said.

Campbell, who is retiring this year, said the probe would focus on whether the reorganization process has been "objective, fair and impartial." He didn't offer a timeline for the release of a report.

Bureau of Indian Affairs officials who attended the hearing seemed surprised by the announcement. Theresa Rosier, counselor to the assistant secretary and a close associate of Martin, and Ed Parisian, director of the Office of Indian Education Programs, testified before the committee.

As part of the Bush administration's reorganization of the BIA, OIEP reports to the principal deputy assistant secretary rather than the assistant secretary, a post requiring Senate confirmation. Although tribal leaders questioned whether this change complied with NCLB, administration officials said there would be no difference.

In recent months, OIEP has been the target of internal criticism. Three reports from the Department of Interior's inspector general found problems with the construction of new schools, a priority of the Bush administration, misuse of emergency school funds and background checks of employees who work with Indian children.

Rosier, a political appointee who was not confirmed by the Senate, said Martin has maintained close contact with the inspector general's office and is implementing recommendations made in the reports. Two were completed while Martin was acting assistant secretary but investigators said BIA was slow to respond even after given extensions.

The third report, on financial mismanagement, was finished shortly after Dave Anderson, the new assistant secretary, took office in February.

Parisian, who became director of OIEP last August, said he has sought to impose greater accountability. "I came in stressing accountability, particularly financial management," he told the committee. "We're looking at those recommendations and implementing the recommendation that were in the report, particularly the contingency funds."

The report found that the contingency money was used for non-emergency purposes, including televisions, bean bag chairs, puppets, furniture, computer software, retreats for staff members and other items and services.

Rosier sought to tie the problems uncovered by the report to Bill Mehojah, the former director of OIEP who was reassigned as part of the reorganization. But Parisian was deputy director of the office from February 2002 up until his promotion and served as an "education line officer" -- the equivalent of a regional director -- for two years prior.

Anderson was unable to testify yesterday due to a previously scheduled personal commitment. Martin, a former committee staff member, did not appear either.

Relevant Documents:
Witness List/Testimony (June 16, 2004)

Inspector General Reports:
Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Indian Education Program Central Office Management of Administrative Funds� (March 2004) | Improvements Needed in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Process for Conducting Background Investigations of Indian Education Employees (March 2004) | School Construction Program: Improvements Needed To Ensure Safety And Program Performance (February 2004)

Relevant Links:
Office of Indian Education Programs, BIA -