Gavin Clarkson, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, is running for U.S. Congress. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Pro-tribal and pro-Trump? Choctaw citizen seeks voice in Congress

'Indian poverty is not a life sentence'

Republican Gavin Clarkson campaigns for seat in New Mexico
By Kevin Abourezk

Gavin Clarkson knows the value of hard work and education.

He learned those lessons through hearing his own father’s story.

Broke and orphaned in Oklahoma as a child during the Great Depression, Charlie Clarkson was so broke he had to dig through garbage cans for food.

“He would tell you he was broke and not poor because poor is a state of mind, whereas broke is a temporary interruption of cash flow,” Gavin Clarkson said.

Then came the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the young Choctaw man decided to go fight the Japanese.

Charlie Clarkson’s tour of duty in the Pacific became a lifetime endeavor and he ended up spending 26 years in the Navy, eventually becoming the first Native American to fly a jet and later the senior nuclear targeting strategist for NATO.

Along the way, he met his future wife, Martha Atelia Clarkson. The two were living in Paris. She was a defense analyst, he was in Navy intelligence.

“I am proof positive that Indian poverty is not a life sentence,” Gavin Clarkson said. “My family’s history is one of empowerment through education.”

Now he wants to help other Native Americans lift themselves up through education and economic development.

Clarkson, 49, is seeking New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District seat.

An enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation and a Republican, Clarkson holds a bachelor’s degree and MBA from Rice University and a law degree and doctorate in business from Harvard University. He is currently an associate professor in the College of Business at New Mexico State University.

Last June, he was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. While at the agency, he worked on economic development issues until December, when he left under a cloud of scrutiny. He says he resigned, though some at the department allege he was forced out.

What’s clear is Clarkson was the subject of unwanted media attention before he left, including news articles by the Washington Post, ProPublica and Indianz.Com about his connections to a controversial $22.5 million loan to the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. Working as a consultant for the tribe prior to joining the BIA, Clarkson helped the tribe secure the BIA-backed loan in order to purchase a Wall Street firm that eventually went belly up.

The BIA is now being sued in federal court for refusing to guarantee the remaining $20 million in debt.

The Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior examined the failed loan as part of a larger investigation into the BIA’s loan guarantee program, which Clarkson oversaw while at the BIA. The agency’s report stated that staff at the BIA’s Division of Capital Investment (DCI) acted in a way that “created unnecessary risk for loans already considered risky” due to limited oversight and inadequate controls.

"As of September 30, 2016, DCI was potentially liable for $606 million in guaranteed loans," the report noted.

After the story was reported by ProPublica in November, Clarkson became the focus of intense scrutiny at the department. According to some sources in the building, he was soon asked to resign after returning to D.C. from an international trip.

The department declined to comment at the time because his status was considered a "personnel" matter.

Officially, Clarkson stayed on board through the end of December. He submitted a resignation letter to Secretary Ryan Zinke on December 29 and announced his campaign for Congress.

A more recent Inspector General report showed Clarkson was the subject of an ethics inquiry after employees found his behavior to be “disturbing” and left them "in shock.”

According to the report, published in late February, Clarkson "encouraged" subordinates at the BIA to pay out the controversial tribal loan.

“Why don’t you guys just pay that guarantee?” Clarkson told one subordinate, the report stated.

“It would be best for everybody if the problem went away,” he allegedly told a second.

The loan was connected to a second ethics issue. According to subordinates, Clarkson encouraged the BIA to hire three of his former business associates, "all of whom had been involved in the loan guarantee," the report said.

Regarding the most recent Inspector General report, Clarkson has flatly denied the allegations, saying it was the result of “Deep State” bureaucrats who hated Trump and were angered by his administration’s efforts to reform the Interior. He pointed to his own efforts to end congressionally mandated telework, which allows federal employees to work from home.

“This unmonitored payoff to public sector unions, which the GAO has pointed out has no evidence that it is good for the taxpayer, has become a sacred right of the Deep State to abuse,” he said. “So, it is no wonder that many of the bureaucrats felt that I was creating a hostile work environment because I was insisting on a work environment and requiring teleworkers to actually do their job.”

He also said he never helped any tribe on any project he had worked on before joining the BIA, and he blamed Lois Lerner, a controversial former official at the Internal Revenue Service, for “blowing up” the tribal loan.

“While I maintain that the loan guarantee on the tribal project that Lois Lerner blew up should have been paid by the program, by the time I arrived at DOI, the case was already in the federal courts and out of our hands, so it was impossible for me to have influenced anyone to pay on the guarantee, nor did I attempt to do so,” Clarkson said.

He said he did pass along resumes of former colleagues, former students and even registered Democrats to work for the Interior. But he insisted that he was not involved in any attempt to hire anyone.

And as far as suggesting that anyone at the BIA hire his relative -- namely his mother, Martha -- he said the allegation was related to a joke he once made.

“Finally, I was attacked for making a joke that, given how shorthanded we were in Indian Affairs, my elderly mother could contribute as an editor from her hospital bed,” he said. “Since she wasn't a member of AFGE, apparently the Deep State didn't find that funny, although the report notes that at least one other subordinate clearly understood that I was joking.”

New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District is home to several tribes, and Clarkson is proposing a series of reforms that he said would help those tribes and other tribes across the United States.

Chief among those proposals is a plan to end dual taxation on Indian reservations.

The plan is related to efforts Clarkson began while at the BIA to revise the Indian Trader Regulations.

Currently, businesses that set up shop in Indian Country are often forced to pay taxes to states and local governments. That deprives tribes of revenues that could be used to improve services and infrastructure in their communities. It also creates uncertainty for outside entities that might otherwise want to bring jobs and development to reservations.

The revenues bypassing Indian Country can be staggering. In Washington, the Tulalip Tribes are losing out on about $40 million a year under a taxation system that's being challenged in federal court with the help of the Department of Justice.

In North Dakota, the numbers are even more outrageous. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation has been deprived of more than $1 billion due to the way the state imposes taxes on energy development on the reservation.

Clarkson said dual taxation often leads major retailers like Walmart to set up shop just outside a reservation’s borders, leading to the loss of significant revenue to Indian communities.

“The largest Walmart on Planet Earth in terms of dollar per square foot sales is in Gallup, New Mexico, because all the Navajos get paid and they all drive off to Gallup to go shopping,” he said.

He said he would end the ability of state and local governments to tax businesses established on reservations, allowing tribes to tax those businesses instead. He said such a legal change would lead to significant revenue windfalls for tribes by way of sales taxes and economic expansion as tribes become better able to attract businesses that have long been wary of the pitfall of dual taxation.

Clarkson said increased revenues for tribal communities would, in turn, benefit states that are home to those communities.

“Economic progress in parts of the state benefit all of the state,” he said. “Tribes ought be able to provide for themselves by having access to their own tax base.”

“As a congressman, I can do that.”

He said leaders in some states, like North Dakota, have objected to ending dual taxation fearing it will lead to massive shortfalls for their own states’ budgets. He said economic expansion on reservations would more than fill any economic gaps left by ending dual taxation.

But if states suffered too much, he said, he would seek to fill states’ budgets by cutting federal spending on foreign aid.

“I’m a big supporter of the state of Israel and so I would de-fund any country that is calling for Israel’s destruction and particularly any country that burns our flag,” he said. “Why would we be sending money overseas when we have needs at home in Indian Country here?”

Clarkson said he is proposing a series of reforms to help Indian Country, including:

· Ensuring that any state that takes gaming compact dollars from a tribe within its borders offers tuition waivers to tribal members from any tribe. He said he often sees Native students drop out of New Mexico State University, where he teaches business, because they can’t afford tuition. Meanwhile, he said, New Mexico alone receives $90 million a year from tribes by way of gaming compacts. “I have Native students drop out of school because they couldn’t come up with $200, and I think that is a travesty," Clarkson said.

· Providing tribes greater access to tax-exempt financing. Currently, federal law allows tribes to only use tax-free bond proceeds for “essential governmental functions,” a restriction not applicable to state and municipal bonds. This restriction, Clarkson said, limits the ability of tribes to issue bonds that can be used to meet their massive capital needs. He said he would eliminate the “essential governmental functions” test for tribes if elected to Congress.

· Ensure Section 17 Corporations, a federal designation for tribal corporations, receive the same capital gains treatment as investments in C Corporations, the most common type of corporation in the United States. He said such a change would lead to significant outside investment in Indian Country enterprises, which he said often lack the needed capital to expand.

· Prevent online retailers like Amazon from collecting sales taxes from tribal members who make purchases on reservations. He said such transactions should not be subject to state sales taxes but instead to tribal sales taxes, if a tribe imposes such taxes. “I will make sure that on-reservation purchasers are not subject to state sales tax, and my elimination of dual taxation will fix that as well,” Clarkson said.

· Repeal mandatory telework, which he said costs the federal government $1 billion a day in lost productivity. He said while at the BIA he would often hear from tribal leaders who would complain about the inability to reach Interior employees who were teleworking and he often caught employees who were supposed to be working from home engaging in other activities, such as hiking the Appalachian Trail. “Indian Country is getting ripped off, and the nation as a whole is getting ripped off,” Clarkson asserted.

If elected to Congress, Clarkson promised to encourage tribes to pursue self-governance compacts in order to give them greater autonomy over their affairs and the officials who make decisions for them. He said many BIA superintendents try to dissuade tribal leaders from pursuing such compacts, telling tribal leaders self-governance will lead to their tribe’s termination.

“All self-governance means is the bureaucrats who don’t do anything might have to actually start doing some work,” he said. “Not a single tribe has been terminated through self-governance.”

He said he also would work to hold federal agencies accountable for taking too long to approve tribal energy projects. As an example, he cited a permit for the Southern Ute Tribe that took the federal government 32 months to approve, compared to the average 4 months it took to approve similar, non-tribal permits.

He said he’s confident these economic reforms would lead to massive windfalls for tribal economies.

“The combination of the oppressive micromanaging bureaucracy that the federal government has in its boot on the neck of Indian Country’s economy plus the destructive effect of dual taxation makes it nearly impossible for most tribal economies to thrive,” he said.

Office of Inspector General Report:
Investigation of Alleged Ethics Violations by a Senior DOI Official (February 26, 2018)

Prior Office of Inspector General Reports:
Stronger Internal Controls Needed Over Indian Affairs Loan Guarantee Program (November 2017)
Summary: Guaranteed Loan to Lower Brule Ignored Risk Factors (March 2017)

Human Rights Watch Report:
Secret and Unaccountable: The Tribal Council at Lower Brule and Its Impact on Human Rights (January 2015)

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