ETHETE, Wyo. —
Agencies often cannot legally cut funding because of treaties, Supreme Court decisions and acts of Congress, and frequently refuse to take control of failing programs.
"It's basically a reluctance to take on tribes. The Department of the Interior bends over backwards to be their friends," said Earl Devaney, the former inspector general at the department that houses the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education. "It's 'make nice,' and what you don't know, you don't know."
Many amounts were relatively small. But there are so many instances of abuses that the total was substantial.
Tribal council members in Northern California used federal grants to pay their utility bills and mortgages. A Nebraska tribe spent health clinic money on horses and ATVs. An environmental supervisor with a Washington tribe received $16,000 for mileage and other charges he either exaggerated or never incurred. Among grant programs with a significant track record in a government database of audits, tribes ran 16 of the 20 with the highest rates of rule-breaking. Auditors flagged welfare grants to tribes, for example, 39 percent of the time. Most prominent were programs funded by Interior's bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education and the Indian Health Service, under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Many findings by auditors suggest mismanagement, not theft or fraud.
One barrier to proper administration of tribal programs is turnover among staff and leaders — entire governments can be voted out of office every two years. Attracting qualified administrators to often-remote reservations in the first place is another challenge. "So they hire maybe the chairman's nephew who had some accounting classes," said Pete Magee, a longtime auditor of tribal books.
Sergio Maldonado, a Northern Arapaho member who is diversity coordinator at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, said tribes generally are just finding their self-governance footing after years of being under federal control. He said there are four goals for a successful tribal government — "academic preparation, professional experience, a collective consensus for the benefit of the tribe and an ethical set of guidelines."