Tony Dearman serves as the director of the Bureau of Indian Education. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Leader of Bureau of Indian Education was investigated for misconduct

The top education official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs was investigated for alleged misconduct, with two new reports detailing his "unusual" and questionable behavior.

Tony Dearman, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, became director of the Bureau of Indian Education in November 2016. He arrived at the leadership position in Washington, D.C., after two stints as superintendent of the Riverside Indian School in Oklahoma.

But Dearman's long connection to Riverside -- an off-reservation boarding school that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited earlier this year -- came back to haunt him. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigated allegations that he intimidated subordinates and "argued" with them during a review of the institution's performance. The OIG also looked into claims that he falsified student data in order to secure additional funds and improve student attendance rates.

And even though Dearman was cleared of wrongdoing in both instances, the investigation uncovered some troubling behavior. His presence at the fiscal monitoring review earlier this year at Riverside generated alarms among his own employees, according to the OIG.

"Eight of the 12 BIE team members and a budget officer said Dearman’s presence at the school negatively impacted the fiscal monitoring review, stating his presence was either improper, inappropriate, a conflict of interest, or an appearance of a conflict of interest," the OIG said in one of the reports.

Dearman's presence was deemed "unusual" by the investigators. He did not attend any other school's review, and none of his predecessors had ever attended such a review, according to the report.

John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, center left, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, center right, are seen with students at the Riverside Indian School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution, in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on January 25, 2018. Photo: Office of Public Affairs - Indian Affairs

Still, a senior Trump administration official saw nothing wrong with his behavior.

"Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs John Tahsuda said he saw no issue with Dearman participating in the fiscal monitoring review or the team’s exit interview, nor did he believe that Dearman should have consulted with the DOI Ethics Office before participating," the report stated.

John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who was tapped by the Trump team to serve as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, was part of Secretary Zinke's delegation to Riverside in January. The performance review took place a month later.

The second report, regarding falsified data, does not mention Dearman or Riverside by name. But the description offered by the OIG makes it clear that he is the subject and that it's about his tenure at the school.

"We investigated complaints about misconduct allegedly committed by a Bureau of Indian Education official when the official was serving as principal of a BIE boarding school from 2006 to 2008 and again from 2010 to 2015," the report states.

Dearman ran Riverside -- a "BIE boarding school" -- for those exact years in question, according to his official government biography.

According to the OIG, student participation in the gifted and talented (GT) program at Riverside "went up dramatically" while Dearman was superintendent. This resulted in a "significantly increased" level of federal funding for the school, investigators discovered. Over three years, Riverside got an additional $1 million, the report stated.

But while Dearman was aware of the correlation, investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing on his behalf.

"We found that when the BIE official was the principal he knew that a higher number of GT students would increase the school’s funding, but we did not substantiate the allegation that GT enrollment was increased solely for more funding," the report said.

Still, the investigation found that employees at Riverside "failed to follow federal GT regulations" because they didn't know what they were doing. Hundreds of students in the gifted and talented program, for example, did not meet the requirements for participation, according to the report. Employees didn't prepare educational plans for each student, either, another requirement.

"The two school employees who administered the program for most of that school year both admitted to us that they were unfamiliar with the regulations," the report stated.

On a second falsified data issue, the investigation confirmed that students were repeatedly being marked as "present" when they weren't actually in class. Dearman was aware of, and approved of, this practice during both of his terms as superintendent, according to the report.

The practice was associated with Riverside's status as a boarding school that attracts youth from all regions of Indian Country. Students were allowed to leave "up to 6 days before the end of the school year" to account for travel time back to their homes, the report said.

By allowing students to leave early, a BIE employee told investigations that Riverside was "shortchanging” their education. But Dearman said there was nothing wrong with the practice, which dates back at least to 2006.

"He denied that marking the students present was an effort to generate additional funding or to otherwise benefit the school or himself," the report stated.

As part of its review, the OIG interviewed principals at two other BIE boarding schools. Neither said they marked student travel time as class time, the report said.

Dearman isn't the only BIE director to come under investigation for alleged misconduct. The agency in fact has been a repeat offender in the eyes of the OIG.

During the Obama administration, Charles “Monty” Roessel, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, was forced out as director after he admitted he hired a romantic partner and intervened to help a relative land a job at the agency, an investigation found in 2016. A second probe showed that exercised "questionable judgment" when he tried to drum up support in Indian Country for a controversial reform initiative.

“You’re right; I ****** up," Roessel told the OIG when confronted about his actions.

Two years prior, also during the Obama era, another investigation uncovered ethical lapses by former director Keith Moore and his chief of staff. The two officials steered a contract to a company run by one of their friends, the OIG said in December 2014.

The BIE was previously known as the Office of Indian Education Programs until the George W. Bush administration christened it with a new name as part of reorganization that was controversial in tribal circles. The entity, which is part of the BIA, oversees 183 elementary and secondary day and boarding schools. About two-thirds are run by tribes while the rest are operated directly by the BIE.

Regardless of the name or how it is organized, the BIE has long experienced leadership issues. The Indian education program at the BIA has seen 34 directors come and go since 1979, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), a former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs said when Roessel's scandal was in the news two years ago.

Dearman, whose career in education began 25 years ago in Oklahoma, remains on board as director of the BIA as of Thursday, an agency official told Indianz.Com. He is a career employee, not a political appointee.

Both OIG reports about Dearman were turned over to John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary who had sanctioned his presence at the performance review earlier this year, for "any action deemed appropriate." The Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary post is a political one.

Both reports were made public following the arrival of Tara Sweeney as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. She is the first Alaska Native to serve in the post -- another political job -- and the first woman in two decades.

In assuming the role, Sweeney vowed to "work with Indian Country to find efficiencies inside the Bureau of Indian Affairs, improve service delivery and culturally relevant curriculum in the Bureau of Indian Education, and create a more effective voice for tribes throughout the federal government."

During her confirmation hearing in May, Sweeney also said she had "zero tolerance" for employee misconduct, especially harassment, bullying and intimidating behavior.

"No employee should ever fear coming to work because of harassment," Sweeney testified on May 9.

Tara Sweeney testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 9, 2018. Sweeney, an Inupiat from Alaska, has been nominated to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs within the Trump administration. Photo: SCIA

A third OIG report in fact looked into such behavior. A senior official at the allegedly "targeted, bullied, and physically threatened" fellow employees, according to a summary posted on Tuesday.

"As part of our investigation, we reviewed historical complaints against the official, and attempted to determine what his superiors knew about the history of complaints concerning his behavior and how they responded to those complaints," the summary stated. "We identified examples of the official behaving unprofessionally and demonstrating questionable leadership when communicating with other employees."

The official, who is not named in the summary, "resigned" from the BIA, thus ending the investigation. Indianz.Com has asked the OIG for a full copy of the report.

Before Sweeney made her comments about harassment, the director of the BIA had been accused of threatening a female subordinate. In April, Bryan Rice, who hails from the Cherokee Nation, mysteriously disappeared after the complaint surfaced and the Trump administration has refused to explain what happened to him. His career at the BIA began in 2002 and he held jobs at other federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, prior to his more recent leadership stint.

Last December, Indianz.Com first reported on the results of a landmark study which showed high rates of harassment at the BIA. On April 23 -- two days before Rice went missing, Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a new anti-harassment policy.

According to a message sent to Interior employees, Zinke and his staff have "encouraged the Office of the Inspector General to open investigations into [misconduct] claims that were brought to our attention."

Despite the change in tone, the House Committee on Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues, remains concerned about "misconduct" at the department. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the panel, has asked Zinke to turn over documents to explain what the Trump administration has been doing to address the problem.

According to Bishop's September 4 letter, "the committee noted a pattern of department employees found guilty of severe misconduct who were permitted to continue federal service indefinitely or for a prolonged period while facing minimal consequences."

Office of Inspector General Reports
Employees Believed BIE Director’s Presence During Fiscal Monitoring Review at Former School Was Improper (August 2018)
BIE Official Allegedly Inflated Gifted Program Enrollment and Student Attendance Numbers at Former School (August 2018)
BIA Official Engaged in Unprofessional Behavior (September 2018)

Even More Office of the Inspector General Reports
BIA Manager Allegedly Sexually Harassed Three Subordinate Employees (February 20, 2018)
Insufficient Actions by BIA Management and Human Resource Officials in Response to Sexual Harassment Reports (October 18, 2017)
BIA Employee Visited Pornographic Websites on His Government Computer (September 20, 2017)
BIA Employee Sent Unwanted, Sexually Explicit Messages (June 5, 2017)

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