Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke participate in a discussion with tribal leaders at Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C, on December 11, 2018. Photo: Office of Public Affairs - Indian Affairs

Bureau of Indian Affairs hit with another harassment scandal

By Acee Agoyo

A senior official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs was investigated for repeatedly harassing women, representing yet another incident of questionable behavior at the agency.

The official worked at the BIA's Southwest regional office as far back as 2009. A woman who worked with him said he repeatedly hugged and touched her, made at least 50 inappropriate remarks and kissed her on the lips 15 times over the years, according to an internal investigation obtained by The Daily Mail.

"All I wanna do is get you naked and show you what it’s like to be with a real man," the official reportedly told the woman, according to The Daily Mail.

At least two other women in the Southwest regional office experienced inappropriate physical contact and verbal remarks from the official. But even though higher-level management at the Department of the Interior was told about the behaviors, nothing was done about his status, according to the Office of Inspector General report obtained by The Daily Mail.

The official has since left the BIA. He name was redacted in the internal report obtained by The Daily Mail and a spokesperson told the media outlet, which is based in the United Kingdom, that the department doesn't comment on personnel matters.

But a source close to the Southwest regional office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told Indianz.Com that the official who was the subject of the investigation was the former regional director.

According to a BIA press release, William Tandy Walker was formally appointed to the post in December 2009. But he had actually been assigned to the region since September 2008, following the removal of the prior regional director.

Walker is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and suddenly retired late last year, according to a second source who is close to the Albuquerque office. The internal investigation began in October 2017, The Daily Mail reported.

Walker's immediate management superior would have been the director of the BIA. But the person who held that post -- Bryan Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation -- mysteriously departed in April after being accused of harassing a female subordinate.

"Supervisors who fail to take timely and appropriate action when warranted are subject to personnel action," Rice wrote in a memo he co-authored in January.

Interior also declined to comment on Rice's situation at the time, citing personnel issues. He lasted only six months on the job.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: A New Director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Following Indianz.Com's report on Rice, members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs repeatedly pressed Tara Sweeney, the Trump administration's nominee for the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, to address harassment and misconduct at the agency. During her confirmation hearing on May 9, she vowed to institute a "zero tolerance policy" for such behaviors.

"No employee should ever fear coming to work because of harassment," Sweeney told the committee. She was confirmed to the post, a political one at Interior, a month later and started working in Washington, D.C., at the end of July.

Since Sweeney came on board, the Office of Inspector General has completed at least five reports about harassment, misconduct and other questionable behaviors at the BIA and at the Bureau of Indian Education, which is part of the BIA. Despite numerous requests for comment about the investigations, the BIA has repeatedly declined to respond to any of the reports or provide details about what actions the new Assistant Secretary has taken to follow up on her "zero tolerance" promise.

The reports include allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, where a manager admitted to engaging in a "sexual relationship" with a student at the tribal college. The official was not named in a summary posted by the Inspector General.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has requested a complete copy of the SIPI report, a spokesperson said.

"Senator Udall believes these types of complaints must be taken seriously and he is requesting the full report as well as a briefing from the DOI IG about its findings," the spokesperson told Indianz.Com. "All employees deserve to work in a safe workplace where they are treated with dignity and respect."

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke also has vowed zero tolerance for harassment. But neither the BIA, nor the BIE, have publicly made available their harassment policies or their plans to address harassment within the workforce.

"Sexual harassment, which includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, will not be tolerated," Zinke wrote in a policy statement in April 2017, a month after being confirmed to his post. "Harassment on any other protected basis is also strictly prohibited."

According to a landmark study released exactly a year ago, the BIA suffers from the highest rate of harassment of all agencies at Interior. Racial and sexual harassment are the most commonly reported types of harassment, employees said in the Workplace Environment Study.

Despite their anti-harassment stance, Zinke and Sweeney are finding it difficult to bring discipline to Indian Affairs. Although Rice left almost eight months ago, the Trump administration has yet to announce a permanent hire for the post.

Instead, Darryl LaCounte has been serving as the "acting" director since April 26.

And the BIA's office in Albuquerque, like others across Indian Country, has been in the hands of an "acting" regional director ever since Walker departed last November. Patricia Mattingly is currently in charge there.

"It's been musical chairs," a tribal official from New Mexico told Indianz.Com.

Read More on the Story
EXCLUSIVE: 'Predator' Interior Department official told a subordinate he ‘wanted to get naked and show her what it’s like to be with a “real man” and told another she wasn’t too old to be ‘spanked over his knee’ (The Daily Mail December 13, 2018)

Recent Office of the Inspector General Reports into Misconduct at Bureau of Indian Affairs / Bureau of Indian Education
Investigation of Misconduct and Mismanagement at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (December 2018)
Investigation of Misconduct Allegations at Haskell Indian Nations University (November 2018)
BIA Official Engaged in Unprofessional Behavior (September 4, 2018)
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)

Even More Office of the Inspector General Reports about Misconduct
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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