ETHETE, Wyo. —
Even when auditors raise concerns, there is no guarantee that tribal leaders will be investigated or prosecuted. Several auditors said their contracts were not renewed after they uncovered self-enrichment by tribal leaders.
Indeed, agencies recoup a small fraction of what they conclude tribes owe.
Since fiscal year 2008, the BIA and the Bureau of Indian Education have collected only $2.3 million of nearly $69 million in questionable expenditures, according to financial records. In several cases, the bureaus were legally barred from recouping money because they waited too long.
Since 2003, auditors concluded that 79 tribes or Indian organizations couldn't justify $33 million of Environmental Protection Agency money they spent. EPA said it had recouped "approximately $3 million" since October 2007.
Indian Affairs and Indian Education can't legally reduce funding even to corrupt governments. Funding levels are set by federal law, regardless of how well a tribe is managed.
Thomas Thompson, a senior budget official at Indian Affairs, said reducing funding based on past practices would penalize tribal members rather than address management issues. The standard punishment is requiring tribes to submit invoices for reimbursement, rather than giving full funding at the start of each year.
Agencies can in theory wrest programs back from tribes, but almost never do. In 2012, for example, Indian Affairs had taken back the programs of three of 566 federally recognized tribes. "They don't want to take the program back;" said Brian Pogue, a BIA employee for 30 years who retired as its director. "They want the tribe to succeed."
Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Interactive Newsroom Technology Editor Troy Thibodeaux in New Orleans and researcher Susan James in New York contributed to this story.
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