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White House still looking for new BIA nominee

Several months after the resignation of former assistant secretary Dave Anderson, the Bureau of Indian Affairs still lacks a leader.

Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department, has been acting as head of the BIA since February. He told tribal leaders last week that the Bush administration still hasn't made a decision about a replacement.

"The White House personnel still hasn't made a selection yet," Cason said last Tuesday at the National Congress of American Indians in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Cason didn't say when a nomination for a new assistant secretary might be announced. But his comments indicated that the process is nowhere near completion. In the last five weeks alone, he said he interviewed three more candidates.

"There are still candidates being identified by White House personnel," Cason said.

Several people have expressed interest in the job. The list includes John Gonzales, the governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico; Jana McKeag, a Cherokee tribal member and head of Interior's Indian Arts and Crafts Board; and Aurene Martin, the former deputy assistant secretary who left the BIA last year.

But the fact that interviews are still being conducted means an announcement might not be coming anytime soon. A selected candidate will still have to undergo a White House vetting process, including an FBI review, that can take several weeks, or even months.

The process is definitely lengthy -- for Anderson, a well-known entrepreneur, it took more than a year. He was nominated in September 2003, nearly a year after his predecessor, Neal McCaleb, resigned.

Anderson wasn't confirmed until December 2003. After just a year on the job, he left in February 2004 amid criticism over his decision to step away from all gaming, federal recognition and land-into-trust decision.

Those matters remain locked up amid delays and political controversies, including the lobbying scandal involving Jack Abramoff. Tribal leaders say an atmosphere of negativity means little is getting done at the BIA, and that the lack of an assistant secretary hampers any attempts to move forward.

As budgets get tighter, tribal leaders are worried they will be without an effective voice. "The broader issue is ... we need to work with you more closely," Ed Thomas, the president of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, told Cason at the conference.

Since the start of the Bush administration, the BIA has seen an incredible amount of changes. Along with a major reorganization, two assistant secretaries have come and gone and two people have been named in acting capacities to make major decisions on gaming, recognition, trust reform and other significant issues.

Without a nominee, the BIA is being overseen by two non-Indians for the first time since the start of the self-determination era. In addition to Cason, the second-in-command at the agency is Michael Olsen, a non-Indian attorney.

Despite the lack of a new leader, Cason said the BIA is moving forward with its agenda. At NCAI, he noted a pending reorganization of the BIA's education office, a new policy on self-determination contract support costs and a broad initiative to revise trust management regulations.

He also rejected talk of a "moratorium" on land-into-trust decisions. George Skibine, a BIA official in charge of gaming, has separately said he intends to draft new regulations for land-into-trust and for gaming on new trust lands.