Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke speaks at the signing a water rights compact with the Blackfeet Nation during a ceremony at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., on June 12, 2018. Photo: U.S. DOI

Secretary Zinke blames Democrats for delaying Indian Affairs nominee

The Bureau of Indian Affairs finally has a new leader, more than 18 months into the Trump administration, but her boss blamed Democrats for the lengthy delay.

During a round of appearances in the Montana media last week, Secretary Ryan Zinke repeatedly talked about the lack of confirmed positions at the Department of the Interior. According to The Washington Post, he said Tara Sweeney, the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, was subjected to "several Democratic holds."

Democrats indeed raised questions about Sweeney and her connections to an Alaska Native corporation that stands to gain financially from the Trump administration's energy development agenda. But Zinke's explanation runs counter to that of key Republicans in the Senate.

Both Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) tied the lengthy delay in the nomination process to ethics officials in the federal government. Sweeney's shares in the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation were at issue, both lawmakers said.

"They started to seemingly almost hold it against her," Sullivan said in a speech on the Senate floor last Thursday as he singled out the Office of Government Ethics as the culprit.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Confirms Tara Sweeney as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs

Sweeney's public financial disclosure report in fact indicates there was a long delay within that office and not among Democrats on Capitol Hill. It was finalized on March 12, according to signatures on the document, some five months after Sweeney was nominated to the post.

That same day, Sweeney sent an ethics letter to Interior in which she pledged to recuse herself from matters affecting Arctic Slope while serving in the executive branch. Lawmakers had nothing to do with that process either.

But when the nomination finally got to Capitol Hill, members of both parties moved quickly. Her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs took place on May 9 and she was advanced to the Senate floor on June 6.

Democrats continued to have questions with respect to Sweeney's recusal but those were resolved much faster in comparison to the delay she faced on the executive side of the process. She was confirmed by a unanimous voice vote on June 28 -- a day after Zinke's media storm in Montana.

Sweeney's approval means the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency that includes the Bureau of Indian Education, finally has a political leader. But The Post points out that the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are still being overseen by "acting" directors.

The situation is unusual for any administration. Despite Zinke's cries of Democratic interference, President Donald Trump has yet to nominate anyone for those positions, The Post reported.

“Secretary Zinke’s attempts to blame Senate Democrats for his own intransigence is laughable, Aaron Weiss, the media director for the Center for Western Priorities, told the paper. The group's June 28 post on Medium claimed the Cabinet official spent a "full day of lying to reporters" last week.

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