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OST officials rewarded despite questionable record

Top officials at the Office of Special Trustee have received nearly $250,000 in awards and bonuses, according to the Government Accountability Office, despite the agency's questionable reform record.

Donna Erwin, the number two in command at OST, has received at least $25,000 every year since 1998 because officials believe her "historical knowledge and managerial ability are needed to ensure Interior's trust oversight and reform success." Yet during that time, the agency has completed just three out of eight key reform goals, the GAO noted.

In addition to receiving nearly $200,000 between 1998 and 2005, Erwin has received time-off awards and a cash award of $9,700. She was given the Presidential Rank Award in 2002, an honor that came with a cash award of 20 percent of her base pay but it had to be split up over two years "because her total compensation was at the maximum allowable for a federal employee," the report said.

Erwin, a member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, wasn't the only one who reaped extra cash for working on trust reform. Seven out of 13 Senior Executive Service (SES) managers received about $50,000 in performance awards from 2001 to 2005, the GAO reported.

One official, who wasn't named, received eight awards in the last eight years while another unnamed manager received six awards over three years. "In fiscal year 2005, about 54 percent of OST's SES managers received at least one major award. In fiscal year 2006, about 69 percent of OST's SES managers received at least one major award," the report said.

The GAO reviewed the matter at the request of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) and other Democrats on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Johnson was concerned that OST officials -- Erwin in particular -- received extra money "for questionable performance" at the agency.

The report didn't analyze whether the awards were warranted but it did say they were approved by the Interior Department's Executive Resources Board. The GAO also said the amounts paid to Erwin and the other top managers "were generally lower than the average amounts provided to other bureaus and offices within Interior and other federal agencies."

The report isn't the first time Erwin and her top managers have come under scrutiny. An investigation by Interior Inspector General found that Erwin and two "senior lieutenants" created an atmosphere of fear and pressure over a multimillion dollar contract that was awarded to a company run by their friends.

The report said the firm repeatedly showered Erwin and brothers Doug and Jeff Lords with meals, drinks and golf trips over a five-year period. The social contacts were tied to numerous increases in the firm's contract, Inspector General Earl E. Devaney said.

Despite the appearance of impropriety, the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico declined to bring charges. Special Trustee Ross Swimmer ordered Erwin and the Lords to undergo two hours of "ethics training."

"Independent of the Inspector General's investigation," OST has started working with Interior's National Business Center to award contracts for trust reform projects, the GAO said. Much of the work is being carried out by the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, though Chavarria, Dunne, & Lamey -- the firm run by Erwin's friends -- has continued as a subcontractor.

OST was created by Congress in 1994 to oversee reform of the Indian trust. Since the start of the Bush administration, its budget has increased by over 130 percent to $222.8 million and its staff has more than doubled, the GAO said.

Government Accountability Office Report:
The Office of the Special Trustee Has Implemented Several Key Trust Reforms Required by the 1994 Act, but Important Decisions about Its Future Remain (January 2007) | Abstract |Highlights

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

Sen. Johnson Letter:
Request for OST Investigation (May 3, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee -

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