Where in Indian Country is Bryan Rice? The Trump administration isn't telling. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Bureau of Indian Affairs in disarray with another mysterious departure

The lack of political leadership at the Bureau of Indian Affairs is spreading to the ranks, with the agency's director mysteriously gone and most of the regional directors vacant under the Trump administration.

Bryan Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who was barely tapped as director six months ago, is the latest reminder of the turmoil. He was supposed to testify at a tribal homelands hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, with his name appearing on the witness list as recently as Monday.

But he was abruptly replaced by a less-senior official and told colleagues at the BIA that he was out "sick."

A tribal advocate who is close to the BIA, however, said he was really on administrative leave, "grounded" and unable to "travel, meet with anyone or testify" after a female subordinate accused him of harassing her in a hallway at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The incident in question took place last December, according to the female employee, who is employed by the BIA. But the allegations didn't start to gain traction until a few weeks ago, with a post on social media offering incredibly detailed information, not just about surveillance footage of the encounter between the pair, but ways to obtain it.

The information was precise in order to get tribes, or anyone else who was reading, to request the footage through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The post also noted that Rice, in his role as director of the BIA, issued an anti-harassment directive in January, a month after the hallway clash.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: A New Director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs

"Supervisors who fail to take timely and appropriate action when warranted are subject to personnel action," the memo co-signed by Rice stated as it encouraged employees to "promptly report" discriminatory and harassing behaviors.

In a place where harassment rates rank the highest of all agencies at Interior, the directive may have come back to bite Rice. On Monday, Secretary Ryan Zinke, who had praised the director's hiring last year, finalized a new anti-harassment policy.

"I want you to know that discrimination, harassment, and intimidation will find no quarter under my command," Zinke told employees as he vowed to "hold everyone, from senior leaders on down, accountable."

On Tuesday, Rice was mysteriously gone from the BIA.

Despite the major development for an agency most closely linked to the federal treaty and trust responsibility, the Trump administration isn't ready to confirm whether Rice was caught up in some sort of #MeToo sting. No one from Interior wants to say anything about his status in fact.

"We don't comment on personnel matters," Nedra Darling, a spokesperson for the BIA, told Indianz.Com from New Mexico, where top officials -- except Rice that is -- spent the entire week meeting with tribes for the 30th anniversary conference of the self-governance program. Secretary Zinke even addressed the event via video.

"We have no personnel announcements," added Heather Swift, a spokesperson for Zinke, when asked whether the Trump administration has named someone else as "acting" director of the BIA.

Yet Rice isn't the only BIA figure missing in action. Of the 12 regional directors, the federal officials who work closely with tribal communities, 8 have someone in charge on a temporary basis.

Only four regions -- Eastern, Eastern Oklahoma, Pacific and Southern Plains -- have a permanent director on the job. The number should jump to 5 when the Western region is included.

But Brian Bowker, the permanent director for the Western region, isn't actually in the Western region. He's up in Alaska, serving as the "acting' director there, thousands of miles from the communities he's supposed to be working with.

The number of permanent directors should jump to 6, as Timothy LaPointe serves in that role for the Great Plains. But he too is away from the region -- he's the "acting" director for Midwest, and will be there at least through June.

The Northwest region has someone temporary in charge as well. The prior director was Stan Speaks, a well-respected and long-serving official who chose to retire last year rather than be forced, by the Trump administration, to take a position elsewhere.

"Thank you for your 59 1/2 years of service," Rice wrote in December in a post on the official @BIADirector Twitter account, which mysteriously no longer bears his photo as it once did just a couple of days ago.

Elsewhere in Indian Country, the Rocky Mountain and Southwest regions are overseen by an "acting" director. Then there's the Navajo region, whose top official was just ordered, again by the Trump administration, to move to D.C.

Efforts by leaders of the Navajo Nation, one of the two largest tribes in the United States, to prevent Sharon Pinto's transfer have proven unsuccessful. Despite talk of a resignation, she has begrudgingly agreed to leave the reservation, according to a tribal advocate who is close to the BIA.

“The BIA isn’t just another federal agency," said President Russell Begaye. "They play an important role in fulfilling the statutory, treaty-based and policy-based trust obligations the U.S. has to Indian tribes. Pinto’s experience in her position is important in developing partnerships between the BIA and the Navajo Nation.”

In his role as BIA director, Rice oversaw the regional directors, who are almost always tribal citizens who have risen through the ranks after years of federal service. The regional directors are career employees, not political appointees.

Rice's rise, however, was closely linked to the Trump administration's political agenda -- an ongoing effort to reorganize the Department of the Interior, an effort that tribes have been told little about.

The initiative has included the reassignment of dozens of senior career bureaucrats, a disproportionate number of whom were tribal citizens, a review by Talking Points Memo found. Among those told to change jobs was Weldon "Bruce" Loudermilk, who had only been serving as the director of the BIA for a little over seven months, having been tapped for that position toward the end of the Obama administration.

Loudermilk, who is a citizen of the Fort Peck Tribes, wasn't happy about it. Documents released by the department through FOIA requests show that he questioned why he was being reassigned after just a short time in D.C., and after having moved his family across the country.

"I accepted the position as Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs less than eight months ago and thus began the process of relocating my family from Anchorage, Alaska to Washington, D.C.," Loudermilk wrote in an email to Mary Pletcher, a top human resources official at Interior. "The department paid for my relocation expenses for which my family and I are still in transition."

The Trump Indian Affairs Team: BIA official's 'disturbing' conduct

The protest didn't result in much success, with Loudermilk eventually agreeing to be transferred to the Office of Special Trustee for American Indians, to a position based in New Mexico. But with him and his Obama-era link out of the way, Pletcher helped the Trump administration install someone else, someone whom she has known in more than just a professional capacity.

Pletcher and Rice, according to multiple sources in Indian policy circles in Washington, maintained a personal relationship throughout the reassignment/reorganization ordeal, which has drawn significant media coverage and raised numerous questions on Capitol Hill.

The Office of Inspector General at Interior even looked into the debacle, amid allegations that some officials were reassigned because of their pro-tribal advocacy work.

Though that investigation failed to uncover any actionable wrongdoing with the reassignments, Pletcher left the department just as it was concluding. She now serves as Chief Human Capital Officer at the Department of Agriculture, where Rice also once worked.

According to the same multiple sources, Pletcher and Rice recently became married, or became engaged to be married. No one from Interior, however, was willing to confirm the nature of their relationship or say whether the relationship played a role in his selection as director.

Though Rice had worked for the BIA in the past, his most recent federal job was director of the Office of Wildland Fire at the Department of the Interior. His transfer to the BIA was announced to tribal leaders on October 16, 2017.

“I know he’s going to do great," John Tahsuda, who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, said of Rice on the opening day of the National Congress of American Indians 74th annual convention.

Later that same day, the White House -- without informing BIA officials in advance -- announced Tara Sweeney to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The move was historic -- she would be the first Alaska Native, and the first Alaska Native woman, to serve in that position.

Six months later, Sweeney has yet to secure a confirmation hearing in the Senate amid questions about her background, which includes serving in a leadership role in her Alaska Native corporation, and holding shares in the corporation, one of 12 established by Congress.

"To say that you can't be a Native Alaskan to represent Native Alaskans is unconscionable," Secretary Zinke said during NCAI's recent winter meeting in D.C. "It's like saying the only people that can't represent the [tribal] nations are the nations. That's exactly opposite."

"I have confidence in Tara and we're doing everything we can to get her in there and to get her through," he added.

The Assistant Secretary is the person who sets the agenda and tone for the BIA. He or she is also the person whom tribes rely on to advocate for Indian Country's interests within the massive federal bureaucracy, where dollars remain scarce.

"We're losing ground, going back to the Self-Determination Act," Aaron Payment, NCAI's vice president, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs earlier this month as he criticized the Trump administration for seeking to cut the BIA's budget, all while the agency remains without a permanent, political leader.

A post circulating on social media called on tribes to file a Freedom of Information Act request for video footage said to depict Bryan Rice, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in an encounter with a female subordinate at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. The incident in question took place sometime between 9am and Noon eastern on December 6, 2017, according to the post.

As for the reorganization, Zinke has promised that it won't move forward without tribal consultation and has suggested that a proposal to redraw Interior's regional boundaries won't be applied to the BIA. A draft map has some BIA regions -- including Navajo -- being broken up and split across different states.

"The nations, they're sovereign," Zinke told members of Congress earlier this month. "We are beginning consultation, and whether or not they adopt this model is really up to them."

As for the BIA director's position, two people have been floated as "acting" or possibly permanent replacements, with Rice out of the picture. One is James D. James, who goes by Jim, and who was among the Indian Affairs officials caught up in the reassignment drama last year.

Another is Darryl LaCounte, who testified in Rice's place at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on Wednesday. He offered some frank testimony on the cumbersome land-into-trust process, which tribes say the Trump administration is trying to make even more difficult to navigate.

And as for that @BIADirector Twitter account, while it no longer bears Rice's photo, his bio is still up there, serving as a reminder of a less turbulent time.

"DBIA since October 2017. RPCV Nepal, Forester, and Federal Executive. Proud to serve @Interior @SecretaryZinke," it reads as of Friday afternoon.

The Trump Indian Affairs Team

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs -- Tara Sweeney, nominated October 2017 but not confirmed. Inupiat from Alaska.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs -- John Tahsuda, Kiowa. Joined September 2017.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development -- Gavin Clarkson, Choctaw. Joined June 2017, departed under mysterious circumstances in December 2017.

The 12 regions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Source: BIA

The Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is divided into 12 regions, with regional offices "located in the heart of Indian Country" and agency offices located on reservations in order to serve tribal communities. Reporting by Kevin Abourezk shows 8 out of 12 are operating without a permanent director, or with the permanent director serving elsewhere.

Brian Bowker is the acting director. He’s also the permanent director for the Western Region.

Bruce Maytubby is the permanent director.

Eastern Oklahoma:
Eddie Streater is the permanent director.

Great Plains:
Timothy LaPointe is the permanent director but he is out until June, because he is serving as the acting director for the Midwest Region. In the meantime, the acting director for the Great Plains Region is Danelle Daugherty.

Timothy LaPointe is the acting director until June.

Twyla Stange is the acting director until April 30. A new director will be named May 1 and is likely to be Bodie Shaw, who is deputy regional director for trust services for the Northwest Region.

Amy Dutschke is the permanent director.

Rocky Mountain:
Susan Messerly is the acting director.

Southern Plains:
James Schock is the permanent director.

John Halliday is the acting director.

Carolyn Richards is serving as the acting director while Brian Bowker, the permanent director, serves out his stint in Alaska.

Office of Inspector General Report:
Reassignment of Senior Executives at the U.S. Department of the Interior (April 11, 2018)

Even More Office of the Inspector General Reports:
BIA Manager Allegedly Sexually Harassed Three Subordinate Employees (February 20, 2018)
Insufficient Actions by BIA Management and Human Resource Officials in Response to Sexual Harassment Reports (October 18, 2017)
BIA Employee Visited Pornographic Websites on His Government Computer (September 20, 2017)
BIA Employee Sent Unwanted, Sexually Explicit Messages (June 5, 2017)

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