Can Trump Drain the Swamp at the Bureau of Indian Affairs?

If ever a federal agency was ripe for termination, the Bureau of Indian Affairs should qualify for consideration. The bureau has a justly-earned reputation as a patronage machine for tribal leaders and their cronies. The Trump administration has been emphasizing its intent to reform the agency. Tribal sovereignty, the product of several 19th-century treaties, is a fact of life. But there are ways of “draining the swamp” that would not require abrogating any treaties.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), created in 1824 and housed under the Department of the Interior since 1849, has much to manage with its current $2.5 billion annual budget. There are 567 federally-recognized Indian and Alaska Native tribes representing about two million persons. Many live on reservations comprising 55.7 million acres. Each tribe elects its own sovereign government to oversee such activities as courts, schools, job training, health care, infrastructure and gambling casinos.

This arrangement gives tribal leaders, family members and friends virtual dictatorial control over who gets what. And that power often functions as a license to steal. Recent examples from the federal courts:

  • Roland Leroy Raymond, former forestry director for the Yurok Indian Tribe of Northern California, pleaded guilty in May 2013 to embezzling $850,000 from a BIA grant intended for environmental uses under the Endangered Species Act and also admitted to conspiring with at least one person at a Eureka consulting firm. Raymond was sentenced the following January to three years in prison and ordered to make full restitution.
  • Delia Commander, a resident of Oregon, was sentenced in January of this year to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution in the sum of $297,731 to a Southeast Alaska Native tribal community, the Village of Skagway, following her guilty plea of embezzlement. She had resigned abruptly in 2014 after Skagway officials became suspicious of “her frequent travel and lack of financial documents.”
  • Various members of Northern California’s Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians in June 2014 stormed the BIA regional office in Sacramento to demand the arrest of John Crosby and Leslie Lohse, respectively, the Paskenta economic development officer and treasurer, for embezzling about $10 million in tribal funds. They also demanded the arrest of two tribal council members for allegedly launching a cyber-attack on the tribe’s Rolling Hills Casino. Crosby and Lohse countered that their accusers were covering their own tracks for stealing tribal records and planning a military-style takeover of the facility. In January 2017, a grand jury indicted Crosby, Lohse and Crosby’s mother, Ines Crosby, for embezzling at least $6 million. Two years earlier, the tribe filed suit in federal court against the trio and another individual for stealing more than $20 million.

That last case underscores how a mix of tribal patronage and casino profit is on the line. In 2014, for example, each adult member of the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki received $54,000 from casino profit and each child in that tribe received a trust fund and a scholarship. Indian casinos across the U.S. generate piles of money – gross revenues were $31.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2016 – but that’s mainly the result of tribal monopoly privilege authorized by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Bitter and even lethal conflicts over casino management have resulted from disputes over the authenticity of a person’s claim of tribal lineage.

Anecdotes in and of themselves, of course, do not prove a pattern. But it would be difficult to deny that a longstanding pattern exists or that current safeguards against corruption are adequate. In practice, senior officials at the BIA, who typically belong to a tribe (including current Director Bryan Rice) are subject to pressure to deliver for their own. That’s one reason why despite the casino windfalls, many Indian reservations remain mired in poverty, paternalism and substandard public services.

To its credit, the Trump administration wants to improve accountability. Last May then-Acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Michael Black, a member of the Oglala Sioux nation, praised the Fiscal 2018 Bureau of Indian Affairs budget as “enhancing tribal prosperity through tribal rather than federal efforts.” This approach, however, requires trusting the benevolence of recipients. Experience has shown that such faith, in lieu of aggressive monitoring, would be misplaced.

Here’s an idea: Since the Bureau of Indian Affairs has proven virtually impervious to reform either from within or from above, why not abolish the agency outright? If as Black argues, economic development is best achieved through tribal initiative, then by implication the BIA isn’t needed. And by cutting off public funds, Congress would be reducing the opportunities for corruption. Almost anything at this point would be an improvement over the current cycle of paternalism and dependency.