Charles “Monty” Roessel is seen at a Native American Journalists Association panel in July 2015. Photo: All Digitocracy

Bureau of Indian Education racked by another top-level scandal

The leader of the Bureau of Indian Education hired a romantic partner and intervened to help a relative land a job at the beleaguered agency, according to a scathing report released on Wednesday.

Charles “Monty” Roessel, a member of the Navajo Nation, started serving as acting director of the BIE in February 2013 and was officially named the director in December of that year. By then, he already brought his romantic interest on board and within a few months of his permanent appointment, he hired her as a program analyst in Washington, D.C., the Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General said in the report.

But when questioned about the nature of their relationship, Roessel was evasive. “That’s a tough question to answer," he told investigators, according to the report.

Roessel acknowledged that he never informed ethics officials or anyone else about the relationship and that did not consider it to be a problem "because he was not her immediate supervisor," the report stated.

Students, parents and staff at the Cove Day School in Arizona hosted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Bureau of Indian Education officials on January 14, 2016. Charles “Monty” Roessel can be seen third from left in the back row. Photo: Navajo Nation OPVP Russell Begaye And Jonathan Nez

But a human resources official at the BIE said he would have warned Roessel not to hire an intimate partner had he known about the relationship. Another official said the relationship made it it difficult to work with the program analyst and yet another one was so bothered by the situation that he planned to take a leave of absence, according to the report.

"He said that the program analyst acted as though she was untouchable, which made him uncomfortable," the report stated.

In the second instance, the OIG said Roessel helped a relative secure a job as an education specialist for BIE schools on the Navajo Nation. The relative in fact was not the person initially chosen for the position but Roessel acknowledged -- after some prodding -- that he intervened to make sure she got it, the report stated.

When confronted with what appeared to be conflicting explanations about his involvement, Roessel responded with some amazing candor.

“You’re right; I ****** up," he said, according to the report, which did not redact or otherwise censor the expletive.

An excerpt from the report "Investigation of Improper Hiring at the Bureau of Indian Education" from the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior. Highlight and redaction added by Indianz.Com

According to the report, Roessel called his relative during a break in an interview with the OIG and told her she will probably lose her job "based on his actions." Then he got even more frank with the investigators.

"Roessel felt that he was going to lose his job over this issue and said that he was already planning an 'exit strategy,'" the OIG wrote. "He said that he did not think he would be effective in his position once this report was issued."

Roessel is indeed on his way out. The Interior Department told the Associated Press that he was demoted on Wednesday.

Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, a member of the Winnebago Tribe, will serve as acting director, the AP reported. She is a deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The report comes at a critical time for the BIE. The agency is undergoing a somewhat controversial reorganization in order to improve student achievement levels and increase the involvement of tribes in a system that serves about 48,000 young Native Americans, some of whom are forced to attend classes in crumbling and unsafe facilities.

A boiler in a Bureau of Indian Affairs classroom failed an inspection in February 2015 because carbon monoxide levels were too high, according to the Government Accountability Office. The level reads 1,267 parts per million (ppm) -- levels above 100 ppm can cause headaches, according to Levels above 1,000 ppm can lead to loss of consciousness after 1 hour of exposure and even death after prolonged exposure. Photo: Government Accountability Office

But the effort has long been overshadowed by by top-level management challenges. Until Roessel came on board in December 2013, the BIE went without a permanent director for more than a year. His predecessor, Keith Moore, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was hired after a nearly three-year vacancy.

Moore, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, suffered from his own ethical lapses. He too was the subject of an OIG investigation that determined he and a top aide steered an $840,000 contract to a company run by one of their friends.

But unlike Roessel, Moore completed his own "exit strategy" before he could have been held accountable. He left the BIE in June 2012 and the OIG report didn't come out until December 2014.

The BIE's many challenges will be discussed at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on April 6. Topping the agenda is a bill introduced by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the panel, that establishes an independent Indian education agency within DOI.

"The structure at the Bureau of Indian Education is broken,” Barrasso said last month when he introduced S.2580, the Reforming American Indian Standards of Education Act, or RAISE Act. "My legislation will ensure that the administrators, teachers, and students from tribal communities are being listened to and that their needs are being met. It is an important first step for better transparency and accountability for schools across Indian Country.”

Inspector General Report:
Investigation of Improper Hiring at the Bureau of Indian Education (March 30, 2016)

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing (April 6, 2016)

Government Accountability Office Report:
Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities (March 10, 2016)

Another Inspector General Report:
Investigative Report of Brian Drapeaux (December 2, 2014)

More Government Accountability Office Reports:
Further Actions on GAO Recommendations Needed to Address Systemic Management Challenges with Indian Education (April 22, 2015)
Bureau of Indian Education Needs to Improve Oversight of School Spending (November 13, 2014)

Join the Conversation