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OST officials in close contact with accounting firm

Senior Office of Special Trustee officials were showered with meals, drinks and golf trips while awarding an accounting firm run by their friends with millions of dollars in work, a new investigation concluded.

During a five-year period, three top OST officials in Albuquerque, New Mexico, socialized on numerous occasions with executives of Chavarria, Dunne & Lamey. The Interior Department's Inspector General recorded dozens of dinner, happy hours, golf rounds, out-of-state trips and other get-togethers that paint a rather cozy relationship between the agency and the firm.

The contacts involving Donna Erwin, the number two at OST, and two of her top aides, brothers Doug and Jeff Lords, were so close that they were often tied to increases in the firm's contract. Just days after a meal, golf outing or other event, OST officials would secure "modifications" that brought even more money to the Albuquerque-based company.

"These types of instances occurred throughout the life cycle of the CD&L contract, creating the appearance of improprieties," the report stated.

Overall, the firm spent nearly $5,800 on OST-related events, which were recorded as business expenses. But it was a small price to pay for contract extensions that totaled $6.6 million over the five years from 1998 to 2003. The entire contract was awarded without opening it up to competition.

According to the report, "over a period of years, OST awarded and continued to extend and expand, without competition, a contract with CD&L for trust fund accounting and risk management services. At the same time as this contract grew and expanded, the most senior ranking officials in OST �- Donna Irwin, Principal Deputy Special Trustee; Doug Lords, Deputy Special Trustee for Field Operations; and Jeff Lords, Deputy Special Trustee for Trust Accountability �- engaged in extensive outside social activity with executives of CD&L."

The contacts violated OST policy that requires officials to remain at "arms length" from government contractors. But even after a key ethics memo was issued, Erwin and the Lords continued to socialize with CD&L executives, the report stated.

The relationship also raised eyebrows among lower-level employees. They told investigators that they felt pressured to continue awarding work to the firm or face retaliation from Erwin and her "senior lieutenants."

One employee who raised questions about the relationship said "Erwin asked him why he was 'bitching' about her having drinks" with the executives.

The negative atmosphere prompted Inspector General Earl Devaney to request that OST personnel "who cooperated and provided information" be protected from any retaliatory actions.

Despite the appearance of wrongdoing, Erwin and the Lords were spared legal scrutiny because they were not directly in charge of the contract. A fourth OST employee, an unnamed "management analyst" who was responsible, was singled out for violating Interior's "Standards of Conduct."

But the U.S. Attorney's office in New Mexico declined to prosecute any of the officials involved, the report said.

According to U.S. News, which broke the story about the investigation, Special Trustee Ross Swimmer has not taken strict action against his senior-most aides. He only said he requested "ethics training" for Erwin and the Lords brothers.

Swimmer, a presidential appointee, works in Washington, D.C. Erwin is in charge of operations in Albuquerque and has wide latitude to carry out her duties without much interference from higher-ups in the nation's capitol.

Erwin, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, was promoted to "principal" deputy special trustee following a reorganization at OST. According to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), who requested an ongoing Congressional investigation into OST, Erwin has received more than $150,000 in cash awards and bonuses for her work.

Along with the Lords, Erwin has been a longtime employee at Interior. She started working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs before the agency's trust fund management division was taken away and moved to OST.

Inspector General Report:
Allegations Concerning Senior Officials of the Office of Special Trustee for American Indians (May 2005)

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee -
Chavarria, Dunne & Lamey -