Charles “Monty” Roessel, the former director of the Bureau of Indian Education. Photo: All Digitocracy

Scandal continues to hinder Bureau of Indian Education efforts

Efforts to reorganize and reform the Bureau of Indian Education continue to falter amid scandals within the agency and disagreements among key members of Congress.

Tensions resurfaced last week when the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved a bill that would allow Indian parents to use BIE funds to send their children to institutions of their choice. Critics of the effort say the federal government should be investing more money in the troubled agency if there is any hope at improving achievement levels among its 41,000 students.

"I do not believe in any program that would divert public education funds to private entities with limited accountability," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) , the vice chairman of the committee, said at a business meeting before the bill was approved on a party-line vote. "Putting tribal education at the mercy of a voucher program is a sure-fire way to handicap Congressional oversight and take away accountability from the people most impacted by those education systems, which are tribes, Native parents and local communities."

But Congress isn't the only place where divisions have emerged. Mistrust runs deep within Indian Country, largely in part because the BIE was established by the Bush administration in 2006 with virtually no consultation of tribes.

"Construing the statute liberally in favor of the Indians, an open discussion of a proposal to reorganize Indian school administration must include a candid discussion about what funds will be used to pay for the reorganization," Judge Karen E. Schreier wrote in a July 2006 decision that prevented the Bush administration from implementing changes at BIE schools in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Despite the tainted history, the Obama administration has pressed forward with its own reorganization of the agency. The so-called Blueprint for Reform seeks to place more control of BIE schools in the hands of tribes, an idea that would normally draw support in Indian Country.

But, in a new lawsuit, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is objecting to the changes, accusing the BIE of making the same mistakes all over again. Just last week, Schreier said the case could proceed, rejecting the Obama administration's attempt to have it dismissed.

Employing language eerily similar to her decision from 2006, Schreier wrote that "when construing the facts in a light most favorable to the tribe, the court finds that the tribe plausibly alleges that defendants failed to consult with the tribe in an open, government-to-government discussion regarding the proper means of BIE reform."

Acting BIE Director Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes says "Wa’iniginapsana" (Thank You in Ho-Chunk) to all the BIE teachers...

Posted by Bureau of Indian Education on Tuesday, May 3, 2016

As the case was inching forward, the Obama administration was dealing with some big messes in Washington, D.C. In March, the Obama administration removed Charles “Monty” Roessel from his position as director of the BIE after an investigation revealed that he hired a romantic partner and intervened to help a relative land a job at the BIE.

It turns out that wasn't the only problem facing Roessel, a member of the Navajo Nation. Yet another investigation showed that exercised "questionable judgment" when he tried to drum up support for the Blueprint for Reform.

According to the Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General, Roessel directed his staff to generate letters of support that were sent to 10 tribes in New Mexico. He hoped the tribes would then send the letters to a key member of Congress who controls the agency's funds.

Even though the effort largely failed -- only four tribes sent letters of support, according to the report -- Roessel's own staff and others within the Department of the Interior were suspicious.

"That is definitely a line that we wouldn’t cross," a higher-ranking official told investigators.

At the same time, investigators said there was no evidence that Roessel awarded BIE grants to tribes and tribal organization in hopes of securing their support for the reorganization. And the Department of Justice declined to prosecute.

After his demotion in March, Roessel remained employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs but he has since left the federal government.

Until Roessel came on board in December 2013, the BIE went without a permanent director for more than a year. His predecessor, Keith Moore, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was hired after a nearly three-year vacancy.

Moore, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, suffered from his own ethical lapses. He too was the subject of an investigation that determined he and a top aide steered an $840,000 contract to a company run by one of their friends.

Moore left the BIE in June 2012, long before the report came out in December 2014.

The BIE, which was previously known as the Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP), oversees 183 elementary and secondary day and boarding schools. About two-thirds are run by tribes while the rest are operated directly by the agency.

The BIE and the OIEP have seen 34 directors come and go since 1979, according to Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He is sponsoring S.2580, the Reforming American Indian Standards of Education Act (RAISE Act), to reform the agency.

"You wonder how an organization can survive if the leader of the organization cannot be held accountable to the students or the taxpayers," Barrasso said at a business meeting on May 11, when the committee advanced his bill despite complaints from Democrats about a cap on funding levels.

Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, a member of the Winnebago Tribe, has been serving as acting director of the BIE since March. A permanent leader has not been selected despite attempts to recruit from Indian Country.

Inspector General Reports:
Investigative Report of Alleged Grant Fraud In Connection to BIE Reorganization (August 15, 2016)
Investigation of Improper Hiring at the Bureau of Indian Education (March 30, 2016)
Investigative Report of Brian Drapeaux (December 2, 2014)

Government Accountability Office Reports:
Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities (March 10, 2016)
Further Actions on GAO Recommendations Needed to Address Systemic Management Challenges with Indian Education (April 22, 2015)
Bureau of Indian Education Needs to Improve Oversight of School Spending (November 13, 2014)

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