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Anderson urged to take greater control of BIA

The exit of several top Bureau of Indian Affairs aides gives assistant secretary Dave Anderson an opportunity to make positive changes at the troubled agency, observers say.

Sen. Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) supported Anderson during his confirmation and welcomed his arrival at the BIA. But he said tribal leaders in his state are frustrated because the agency hasn't been responsive to their needs.

"My hope is that this management shake-up in the BIA Washington office will establish the possibility of a new era of real cooperation between the Federal government and tribes in addressing the pressing problems facing Indian Country," Daschle said in a statement on Friday.

Tex Hall, chairman of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), agreed that Anderson should take advantage of the situation to bring in a team that supports his vision. Hall has been concerned that senior aides in the Washington, D.C., office were not supporting their boss.

"I think it's only normal for people to get a chance to select their staff that shares their philosophy," Hall said. "That's just standard business practice with any tribe, with any corporation, and it should be with the assistant secretary position."

But the resignation of Aurene Martin, the BIA's second-in-command poses additional questions about accountability. In a controversial move, she had been in charge of all federal recognition, gaming and gaming-related land acquisitions.

Citing his past involvement in the Indian gaming industry, Anderson recused himself from all those subject areas, so he cannot resume them when Martin departs. Yet as of last week, department officials did not know who would take over her duties when she leaves September 10.

Normally, another senior aide would assume the principal deputy assistant secretary's position on an acting basis until a replacement is found. However, the most logical person for that job, Woodrow Hopper, the deputy assistant secretary for management, is being reassigned out of state as part of the management shuffle, department sources said last week.

Anderson still has a month to bring in a person of his choosing. But the short time period raises the possibility that the two aides remaining in the Washington office -- attorneys Theresa Rosier and Michael Olson -- may take a larger role during the void. Neither person was subject to Senate confirmation although Martin has called on them to appear on her behalf before Congress.

Another possibility for the position is George Skibine, a career bureaucrat who is currently the acting deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development. It is common for career staff to take on such roles, particularly during the transition periods before and after an election.

For much of the past four years of the Bush administration tribal leaders have been unhappy with the BIA's leadership. They were insulted when former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb agreed to split the agency into "trust" and "non-trust" entities without first consulting them.

The plan was eventually scaled back but resurfaced in the form of a reorganization that most tribal leaders oppose. They criticized the "top heavy" plan as beefing up resources for the Washington office and the Office of Special Trustee while leaving reservation-level agencies behind.

Martin and some of the aides that have since departed the central office, including former chief of staff Jerry Gidner, rushed to implement as much of the reorganization as possible before Anderson arrived. Martin was responsible for appointing Hopper and for asking Skibine to take on the economic development role. The only exception was Brian Burns, the chief information officer who was hired by McCaleb in the summer of 2002.

As part of the reorganization, Martin also shuffled around most of the BIA's directors. Some were required to leave the Washington office to work in the field. Others already in the field were moved to different regions of the BIA.

Anderson, however, did have a hand in selecting the regional directors of the Great Plains and California areas. Those positions were finalized last month.