Fraud atThe Bureau of Indian Affairs


The Bureau of Indian Affairs

by Jennifer Hicks

Okay, let's face it. We've got a problem. And something must be done. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a part of the Department of the Interior, has stolen billions of dollars from various Indian tribes. This is not an exaggeration. Nor is it an untruth, as you will see. The federal government has done nothing about this. Rather, they have ignored it, implicitly stating that it's okay to steal from America's Natives. How then can we look at Clinton's Initiative on Race as anything other than rhetoric? He bases the race initiative on his belief that there should be "responsibility from all". This is a noble goal, but shouldn't it apply also to governmental agencies?

By doing nothing, the government condones theft from American Indians. Certainly, this is neither a responsible stance nor one that promotes racial equality. According their mission statement, the BIA is "to promote economic opportunity" for the people they serve -- the American Indians. Such is not the case. Instead, with overt lack of respect and BIA's Bill Benjamin's sentiment that "it's just Indian money... it doesn't matter", the BIA is indicative of the government's own racist attitudes against Native peoples. In its 11/28/94 issue, U.S. News & World Report described the BIA as "the worst federal agency." Little was done.

Three years later, Ken Gover, Pawnee, took office as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. At his address to the 53rd Annual Convention of the National Congress of American Indians, he admitted,

At times, the agency [BIA] has carried out offensive, destructive policies and has approached Indian Affairs in a paternalistic, disrespectful manner.

He went on to say,

We must keep you informed about what is happening within the Bureau. If we're not telling you what we're doing, it's natural for you to conclude that we're not doing much.

Interestingly, though, the last press release dealing with the BIA's mismanagement of funds was last November, almost a half year ago. On November 14, 1997, a press release from the Department of the Interior admitted $1.97 billion in "unreconciled transactions" emanated from the BIA. The press release defines an unreconciled transaction as "one in which source documents could not be located to verify the accuracy of an entry on the general accounting ledger." Sounds suspiciously like theft, to me. In an attempt to appease the Natives of America from whom it stole, the BIA and DOI have offered extremely unfavorable settlement terms to the affected tribes.

A recent Business Wire story reported that "57 percent of government employees say they've seen ethical violations." David L. Henry would agree -- and go several steps further, further illuminating the corruption and massive fraud within the BIA. Henry, a non-Indian and CPA, began his career as an accountant working for Arthur Andersen & Co. He later worked as controller for a group of construction companies , Volkswagen, and Reader's Digest. Clearly, he knows finances. In 1985, he joined the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, Montana. Ten months later, he was fired for "insubordination" because, as he says:

I found fraud in every one of the several BIA financial systems I examined, and what can only be seen as criminal neglect in BIA accounting and auditing in general. The loss to Indians from fraud, and the liability to taxpayers to replace missing money in BIA trust accounts is more than a billion dollars.

He didn't stay quiet. Instead, he wrote a book called Stealing From Indians: Inside the Bureau of Indian Affairs: An Expose of Corruption, Massive Fraud and Justice Denied. Through extensive use of third-party evidence, analysis, and audits, Henry asserts:

Information fed into the agency's computer system is disorganized and erroneous. An estimated $5.8 billion has not been collected (since 1979) from companies that pump oil and gas from reservation lands, thus robbing Indians. In some cases, money that belonged to individual Indians and tribes was deposited in slush funds through accounts set up under phony names. There are thirty recent incidents in which federal employees were allegedly involved in theft, embezzlement and fraud on Indian reservations, yet few were prosecuted. BIA sponsored Indian programs failed to improve the economies of reservations, and BIA failed to provide quality education for Indian children. Housing programs are riddled with scandal, and housing in many areas is shockingly substandard. Indian health remains poor, with diabetes reaching epidemic proportions on some reservations. The BIA cannot manage its own money, or account for millions in equipment and supplies.

One of the primary problems according to Henry is that no federal law exists against fraud, if the fraud is committed by a federal employee under "the color of his office." This is due in part to the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The doctrine of sovereign immunity basically says that States (and the federal government) can't be sued unless they agree to be. According to Mike Taylor, tribal attorney for the Colville Confederated Tribes,

The basic idea behind sovereign immunity is that property held by the government (including assets in the public treasury) is in trust for all the citizens of that particular government. The public treasury and public property are, therefore, to be used for the benefit of all the citizens equally--not jut a few individuals (such as the people who file lawsuits).

And, while many state supreme courts have eliminated the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the federal government has not. This means that the BIA has no liability and can not be taken to court -- no matter how much money is part of "unreconciled transactions".

Henry has proposed that the doctrine be repealed. His Hobbes- Henry Act would eliminate such protection. We cannot expect government officials to abide by the law as long as a law exists to protect them when they break it. Yet his proposed bill has not yet been heard in Congress for it lacks a congressional sponsor. Indeed, Henry's proposal goes to the heart of the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution. The amendment basically says it's unconstitutional for federal courts to entertain suits brought by private parties against the State (or federal government) without its consent. Clearly, then, finding a sponsor may be a challenge. But, not an insurmountable one. Not too long ago, a little girl named Megan was abducted, kidnapped by a known abuser of children. Her parents were outraged. Their neighbors supported them. Petitions circulated. New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman supported the proposed law. Eighty-nine days after Megan's disappearance, Megan's Law was signed into effect. Eighty-nine days have long since passed. Henry has been talking about the fraud in the BIA for a decade. It's time to change this.

No, we're not talking about a little girl. We're talking about many little girls and many little boys. We're talking about many Elders. We're talking, basically, about many people who are being told to settle for less than what is owed to them. And, it's not just money. American Indians are owed equal treatment.

Download Henry's book for PCs. (For Macs, download a compressed version here.) He is supplying the text at no cost because the information needs to get out. It's an expose on the grandest of scales. Complete with names and proof. Send your comments to your senators. Indicate your support of the Hobbes-Henry Act and decry the proposed settlements.

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