Tara Sweeney testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 9, 2018. Sweeney, an Inupiat from Alaska, has been nominated to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs within the Trump administration. Photo: SCIA

Bureau of Indian Affairs nominee vows 'zero tolerance' for harassment

President Trump's nominee to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs is promising to take a tough stand against harassment following the mysterious departure of a senior official who, in the words of a top lawmaker, left the agency "under a cloud of suspicion."

The Trump administration has not explained why Bryan Rice suddenly disappeared late last month. And Tara Sweeney, who would be the first Alaska Native woman to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, said she does not know the particulars of his exit.

But Sweeney, appearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday for her long-awaited confirmation hearing, said she won't accept sexual harassment, or other types of intimidating behavior, if she ends up taking control of the agency.

"I have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment," Sweeney told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "No employee should ever fear coming to work because of harassment."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Tara Sweeney Confirmation Hearing - Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs

Sweeney's comments came after Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed alarms about Rice. The Cherokee Nation citizen only served as director of the BIA for six months before abruptly being replaced by another official at a previously-scheduled hearing before the committee on April 25.

Rice told colleagues at the BIA that he was out "sick" and couldn't testify at the hearing. But Indianz.Com reported that he had been placed on administrative leave after a female subordinate accused him of harassing her in a hallway at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"It is really disconcerting to see the news reports that you just had this individual resign, step down, be fired," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) observed, alluding to the lack of official information about Rice's status, "but then further to learn that you had investigations going on that speak to a widespread -- allegedly widespread -- harassment problems with the Bureau of Indian Affairs."

"You are walking into an agency that has lacked the leadership, that has lacked the discipline," Murkowski noted of a position has been vacant for more than two years. It took Trump eight months to announce Sweeney as his pick for the job.

“We really do need you to shake it up,” added Murkowski, who is one of Sweeney's most prominent supporters.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee, voiced concerns about Rice as well. He went further and described the BIA as appearing to be "in complete disarray,” noting that the lack of leadership at the top has spread to the 12 regions of Indian Country.

"The BIA director just resigned under a cloud of suspicion," said Udall, the top Democrat on the panel.

"Eight out of the 12 regional directors in the BIA are temporary," he added, referring to figures first reported on Indianz.Com by Kevin Abourezk.

"I've also just learned that Interior will replace the Navajo Nation's longtime regional director with a D.C. employee who has no connection to the Navajo community," Udall added. Though the region's incoming director boasts more than 20 years of federal experience, she has not worked in the field, Indianz.Com first reported last month.

"What will you do to stabilize the department and the Indian Affairs team in these uncertain and turbulent times?" wondered Udall.

Sweeney currently serves as a vice president for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of the Alaska Native regional corporations that was established through an act of Congress. She vowed to bring "best practices" from the business world to the federal sphere, promising a "very disciplined to approach" to management in order to improve working conditions at the BIA.

Sweeney also indicated she is willing to stand up to anyone in order to accomplish her goals.

"I work with no fear," she told the committee after she was sworn in under oath. "Fear has no place in the way that I conduct myself or in the way I conduct myself in the business world."

"So I am not afraid to kick down doors if I have to," Sweeney added. "I am persistent.”

A strong demeanor might be needed to address harassment and intimidation, as Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) pointed out that the BIA "actually suffers from the highest rates of harassment of any agency within the Department of the Interior." The figures were first reported by Indianz.Com and have since been covered in High Country News and by other sources.

According to the first-ever Workplace Environment Study, 40.20 percent at the BIA experienced some form of harassment -- particularly racial and sexual harassment -- while on the job. Yet Daines noted that the problem might even be worse, because not enough employees from the Bureau of Indian Education responded to the survey.

"We have to combat that," Sweeney told Daines, who has placed a priority on justice issues like missing and murdered Native women and girls. "It is unacceptable for employees to come to work in fear."

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 former 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.

Still, Sweeney's zero tolerance pledge might not be enough to overcome a lack of discipline in the field, where harassment and questionable behaviors at the BIA have been the subject of no less than four reports from the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of the Interior since 2017.

Two of the reports dealt with the same problem person -- a BIA employee who repeatedly sent "sexually explicit" messages via text and on social media to citizens and employees of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. The women -- "several" of them, according to the OIG -- suffered for more than two years because higher-level officials didn't do anything about the situation even though they were told about it.

"BIA supervisors did not discipline the employee even though they knew his actions, which were substantiated in our separate investigation, damaged the BIA’s reputation, undermined the trust of local tribal members, and negatively affected his coworkers," a summary of one of the reports stated.

"The BIA employee acknowledged that his conduct was unprofessional and inappropriate for a government employee," the summary of the second report read. But he could not be punished because he "resigned" last May, before the OIG could complete its investigation.

Quitting, resigning or being transferred is a common way to avoid being held accountable in the federal system. In another instance, the OIG said it investigated an unnamed "BIA manager" who was accused of engaging in sexual harassment and other unwanted physical actions by three women, one of whom was his direct subordinate.

"When we interviewed the manager, he denied most of the allegations against him, but he later admitted it was possible he had made an inappropriate remark to the first employee," a summary of the report read.

But the manager -- whom a BIA spokesperson declined to identify -- "left" after the investigation began. And just the situation at CRIT, other higher-ranking officials were aware of the complaints, but did nothing about them, according to the OIG.

"We also found during our investigation that two regional BIA managers knew about some of the manager’s alleged misconduct and should have acted sooner to address it," the summary stated.

In hopes of getting a handle on issues affecting the BIA, Sweeney, who hails from a rural Inupiat village in Alaska, said she will spend the "first 180 days" if she is confirmed going around Indian Country and consulting with tribes about their needs and priorities. During those same first six months, she also wants to sit down with key staff to "understand what the challenges are ... and to understand what issues we're facing with respect to personnel management."

"How can we ensure that employees within the department are staying true to the mission?" is one question that Sweeney hopes to answer during her fact-finding endeavor.

"Put politics aside -- Indian Affairs is the department of self-determination and I am committed to upholding the trust responsibility to Indian Country, to ensuring that the federal government is in fact fulfilling that responsibility and advocating for that inside the administration," Sweeney testified during her confirmation hearing.

The next step in the process would be for the committee to hold a business meeting on Sweeney's nomination. Assuming she is approved, she would then need a final vote on the Senate floor before she can take over the BIA.

Murkowski, whose Senate office once employed Sweeney's husband as a staffer on the ground in Alaska, pledged to lobby her colleagues to move quickly. It's already been seven months since President Donald Trump announced the nomination.

“These issues are so bipartisan," Murkowski said as the hearing came to a close. "It's not Republican, it's not Democrat. It's about trying to find the right solutions for our Native people."

The BIA, she said, is viewed by many tribal leaders and tribal citizens as "broken, broken internally."

"There's a lot of people around this country who are relying on your team,” Murkowski told Sweeney.

"I could not be more proud as an Alaskan to be able to help shepherd you through this process," Murkowski added.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs

If confirmed by the Senate, Tara Sweeney wouldn't just be known as the first Alaska Native to serve as Assistant Secretary. She'd be just the second woman in that role -- the first was Ada Deer, a citizen of the Menominee Nation who served between 1993 and 1997.

Sweeney would also be one of the few Assistant Secretary picks without a connection to Oklahoma. Of the 12 confirmed Assistant Secretaries, half have been citizens of tribes based in Oklahoma, or had a parent from an Oklahoma-based tribe.

The last confirmed Assistant Secretary was Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. He announced his departure in December 2015, toward the end of the Obama administration.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency that also includes the Bureau of Indian Education, has been overseen by an "acting" Assistant Secretary since then, or by other political officials at the Department of the Interior.

The list of confirmed Assistant Secretaries since the post's creation in 1977, follows:
• 1977–1978: Forrest Gerard (Blackfeet Nation)
• 1979–1981: William E. Hallett (Ohkay Owingeh and Navajo Nation)
• 1981–1984: Kenneth L. Smith (Warm Springs Tribes)
• 1985–1989: Ross Swimmer (Cherokee Nation)
• 1989–1993: Eddie Frank Brown (Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Tohono O'odham Nation)
• 1993–1997: Ada E. Deer (Menominee Nation)
• 1997–2001: Kevin Gover (Pawnee Nation)
• 2001–2003: Neal A. McCaleb (Chickasaw Nation)
• 2004–2005: Dave Anderson (Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and Choctaw Nation)
• 2007–2008: Carl J. Artman (Oneida Nation)
• 2009–2012: Larry Echo Hawk (Pawnee Nation)
• 2012–2015: Kevin K. Washburn (Chickasaw Nation)

The Trump Indian Affairs Team

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

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.

Biographical information on Tara Sweeney was provided by the White House when her nomination was originally announced on October 16, 2017:
Ms. Sweeney is the executive vice president of external affairs for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), the largest locally owned and operated business in Alaska, owned by approximately 13,000 Iñupiat Eskimo members and 12,000 employees worldwide. Ms. Sweeney grew up in rural Alaska and has spent a lifetime advocating for responsible Indian energy policy, rural connectivity, Arctic growth, and Native American self-determination. Ms. Sweeney served as chair of the Arctic Economic Council from 2015-2017. In 2013, Ms. Sweeney served as the co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and 2003, Ms. Sweeney served as special assistant for rural affairs and education in Governor Frank Murkowski’s administration. Honored in 2008 as a “Top Forty Under 40″ business leader, Ms. Sweeney was also inducted into the Anchorage ATHENA Society in 2017. A graduate of Cornell University, Ms. Sweeney currently lives in Anchorage with her family. Ms. Sweeney is tribal member of the Native Village of Barrow and the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Nomination of Tara Mac Lean Sweeney of Alaska to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior (May 9, 2018)

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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