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Editorial: Interior's lack of accountability

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has a lot of work to do if he intends, as he has stated, to bring greater accountability to the department in charge of oil, buffalo and Indians.

So far, there haven't been too many promising signs. In South Dakota, Kempthorne warned tribes not to expect a lot from his reign since there isn't much time left in the Bush administration.

We've heard a similar message from Carl Artman, the president's Bureau of Indian Affairs nominee. He told Indianz.Com last year that he won't bringing in a new leadership team if he is confirmed, despite a desperate need for one in Washington, D.C.

These kinds of attitudes are a shame, given the huge issues facing the Interior Department. Last week, the House Resources Committee heard of far too many -- Indian trust mismanagement, unreasonable land-into-trust delays, deplorable conditions at reservation detention facilities, ethical lapses by Office of Special Trustee officials and, far more seriously, the death of a 16-year-old student at a BIA school.

Despite the daunting problems, no one at Interior, particularly the political appointees and the high-ranking career officials, ever seems to get punished. As one example, after top OST officials accepted drinks, meals and trips from an accounting firm with millions of dollars in agency contracts, they were merely ordered to take a couple of hours of ethics training.

"In the end, the offending officials were primarily scolded and directed to take ethics training; for others, no action was taken whatsoever, which leads me to the root of my greatest frustration as the IG for Interior –- a culture replete with a lack of accountability," Inspector General Earl E. Devaney said at the hearing.

Devaney expressed optimism with Kempthorne's department-wide call for change. Unfortunately, Interior's mess is only getting worse -- as shown by the Indian trust debacle and the "black hole" known as land-into-trust.

When Ross Swimmer was brought on as the Special Trustee for American Indians, his predecessor was slammed for failing to address discrepancies in tribal and individual Indian trust accounts. Yet a recent report from the Government Accountability Office shows that Swimmer hasn't fixed those problems either.

The same report also noted that top OST officials received nearly $250,000 in awards and bonuses despite completing just three out of eight key trust reform goals -- far from a great track record. Meanwhile, probates keep piling up, millions of dollars in trust funds are being kept from individual Indians and there's still no accounting of the $13 billion that has passed through the system since the early 1900s.

On land-into-trust, the BIA can't show progress either. When George Skibine, the head of the Office of Indian Gaming Management, was asked back in May 2005 how many applications were pending, he said it was "probably" in the hundreds.

But at the hearing last week, we learned that "over 1,000" applications are pending, according to Robin Nazarro, the director of natural resources and Environment at the GAO. So it comes as no surprise that tribal leaders call land-into-trust the "black hole" at the BIA.

House Resources Committee Hearing:
Reports, Audits and Investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Office of Inspector General Regarding the Department of the Interior (February 16, 2007)