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Top-level aides in BIA Washington office removed

A shakeup at the top levels of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has resulted in the resignation or removal of several aides whose loyalty to assistant secretary Dave Anderson had been questioned.

Aurene Martin, the agency's second-in-command, submitted her resignation last week to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Personal reasons were behind her decision to leave, a BIA spokesperson said.

"She's enjoyed working with the department and enjoyed the confidence the secretary placed in her," said Nedra Darling, the spokesperson. "She's resigning as of September 10."

Martin, who ran the agency as acting assistant secretary until Anderson stepped in this past February, isn't the only high-level official to depart. At least five aides in the Washington, D.C., office have been assigned to other positions or are planning to leave.

The list includes Woodrow Hopper, a senior deputy; former BIA director Terry Virden, former chief of staff Jerry Gidner; Dan DuBray, a communications aide; Amy Courson, an attorney; and Denise Desiderio, an assistant. All had been brought to the BIA's central office by former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb, who resigned nearly two years ago under a cloud of scandal, or by Martin.

Only two holdovers from that era, Theresa Rosier and Michael Olson, attorneys who were appointed as "counselors" to the assistant secretary, remain in the office.

Darling could neither confirm that Hopper, the deputy assistant secretary for management, had been reassigned. Any information about his employment status is a personnel matter, she said.

But other department sources said he is in the process of being reassigned to a position outside of Washington, a move that would be considered a demotion. As a deputy, he made decisions on behalf of Anderson or Martin when either were out of town.

Anderson, who is currently traveling in Alaska, was not available for comment. He is not expected to return to the office until next week. Martin is also unavailable -- she is on a previously-scheduled vacation.

Darling would not characterize the changes as "house cleaning." She said people were merely "looking for other opportunities."

But tribal leaders have openly questioned whether Anderson was receiving the support he needed from aides who were in place before he arrived at the BIA. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), recently learned of Martin's resignation.

"At first it was a surprise and then again it wasn't because I think her and Dave Anderson just didn't click," he said. "They didn't seem to really show much enthusiasm for working together."

Hall said wasn't surprised to learn of Hopper's pending reassignment either. Tribal leaders had complained that Hopper's attitude towards them was disrespectful and reflected poorly on Anderson, a vigorous champion of self-determination and self-governance.

Anderson had downplayed any sort of discord in his office, despite being subject to internal and external scrutiny for alleged conflicts-of-interest tied to his past career in the Indian gaming industry. He faced calls for his resignation for handing over all federal recognition, gaming and gaming-related land acquisition matters to Martin, whose position did not require Senate confirmation.

Departmental and Congressional sources, however, said Anderson was not happy with the makeup of the Washington office. One person close to the situation said he went so far as to ask Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles if he could remove Martin and other aides and bring in his own staff. Griles turned down the request because Martin had the support of Secretary Norton, the person said.

Recently, though, Anderson has started relying on the assistance of trusted advisers. He has brought in at least one new aide to explore his ideas for revamping the BIA's school system.

With the shakeup coming less than three months before the election, the BIA risks a state of confusion. Tribal leaders had criticized the White House for taking more than a year to nominate a replacement for the resigned McCaleb. During that time, they said their issues were being overlooked within the administration.

Coming off a reorganization, the BIA has already seen tremendous upheaval in the past two years. Many of the top directors in Washington and in the field were reassigned to other parts of the country.

The only high-level officials in Washington who have survived the changes are George Skibine, a career bureaucrat who is the acting deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development, and Brian Burns, the agency's chief information office who was hired by McCaleb in the summer of 2002. Their positions are not considered "political" appointments unlike the other aides who have been ousted.