Tribes worry Anderson not getting support at BIA
Monday, May 24, 2004

When Dave Anderson took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs earlier this year, tribal leaders welcomed the arrival of the non-politically connected businessman.

"That breath of fresh air that you bring, I hope it continues," Randy Noka, council member for the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, told Anderson in February. "I hope it's not met with a brick wall."

Three months later, Anderson appears to have hit the dreaded wall. Praise has given way to concern as tribal leaders have grown increasingly worried that the new assistant secretary is not getting the support he needs from top-level aides at the BIA.

"That's a bit of a problem," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington.

Tribal leaders and their advocates defended Anderson when he came under fire for removing himself from gaming-related matters. They saw it as a politically-motivated attack aimed at stopping the recognition of new tribes.

But the controversy is indicative of a much deeper fissure within the "inner circle" at the BIA, tribal leaders said. Unlike his predecessors, Anderson hasn't been allowed to choose his own team, a move that normally fosters loyalty among the top leadership.

"It's more at the central office level, that's where the concern is," said Tex Hall, the president the National Congress of American Indians who backed Anderson amid the criticism. "Some people in that inner circle are trying to tie his hands and make him go away."

Sources in and out of the BIA said top-level aides at the agency have worked behind the scenes to hinder Anderson. He has been reported numerous times to the Department of Interior's inspector general and to the Office of the Solicitor's ethics branch for alleged conflicts of interest.

One incident stemmed from his purchase of computer equipment for the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, a tribal college in New Mexico. He bought the items with his own money, prompting an internal investigation.

Anderson's April recusal memo from all federal recognition, gaming and gaming land-into-trust decisions was another incident. Although BIA officials said he was being "proactive" for seeking to avoid controversy, others said he was pressured by inner circle aides who didn't think he should be making those types of decisions.

"He was handed that memo," a source familiar with BIA's workings said.

Tribal leaders believe the lack of support keeps Anderson from advancing his positive and forward-thinking agenda. Allen, a Republican, cited an incident at a recent conference where Woodrow Hopper(*), a high-level aide, offended tribes with his "patronizing and paternalistic" view of tribal self-governance.

Hooper's attitude detracted from Anderson's message and from the overall meeting, Allen said. Tribal leaders found it particularly alarming because Hopper(*), as the deputy assistant secretary for management, has authority over a wide range of budget-related issues and is delegated authority over certain matters when Anderson is away.

"Our concern is what that attitude will do behind closed doors," said Allen. "Dave Anderson's appeal to the tribal leadership is, 'Let's talk about being solution-oriented. Let's get out of our zones of comfort and let's talk about creative ideas on how we are going to accomplish our goals.'"

"We concur with that," Allen noted. "But all of a sudden when a staffer comes up and reflects this kind of [disparaging] position, then all of a sudden you go, 'Now you're the problem.' That's a distraction. That's not leadership."

Part of the situation is attributed to timing because Anderson took the job while the BIA was in the middle a major reorganization. When he arrived in Washington, D.C., he found that all of the top positions -- including the principal deputy assistant secretary and the chief of staff -- were filled. Even his counselors, attorneys who are to provide him guidance on decisions he makes, were already picked out.

Bringing in an entirely new team in such a short time before the upcoming November election can be difficult, tribal leaders acknowledged. It took several months for Anderson's predecessor, Neal McCaleb, to fill the positions in his inner circle back in 2001 and 2002. Anderson inherited almost all of those staff members.

But tribal leaders won't accept these or any other "excuses" for failures in leadership, said Hall. "There's kind of a honeymoon," he said. "If you don't get some things done when that honeymoon is over ... tribes are going to say you can't get anything done."

"What is Dave's platform and can he accomplish it?" Hall said. "Those questions are starting to be asked now."

Allen said election-year politics will determine whether Anderson is viewed as a success. "Really the issue is, does the president get re-elected and does Dave stay over for one more term?" he said. "That's really a question for Dave if he's going to advance some of his ideals and his agenda."

*Ed. Note: Woodrow Hopper's name was incorrectly spelled in the original posting.

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