DOI 'employee' has big impact on Indian issues
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A high-ranking Department of Interior official who has broad authority over Indian affairs appears to have been legally appointed to his position, a Congressional investigation has concluded.

Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason was not nominated by the president nor did he undergo the rigorous Senate confirmation process like his Bush administration peers. He joined the Interior in August 2001 to serve as the top aide to Steven Griles, the department's second-in-command.

But while he handles some of the duties of the Deputy Secretary, he can only do so under certain circumstances, the General Accounting Office said in an opinion letter released yesterday. Anthony H. Gamboa, the GAO's general counsel, said Cason's status as a mere "employee" is "consistent" with federal law.

"[T]here is no dispute that the DOI Associate Deputy Secretary exercises only some of his superior's authorities and does so only in the superior's absence," Gamboa wrote in response to a request by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the Interior.

Gamboa added: "He does not . . . act as a 'Second Deputy.'"

Cason, however, does exert considerable influence even when Griles is around. Since joining the department, he has taken a significant role in the management of Indian trust assets.

After a court report excoriated the Interior for its dismal computer systems, he became the chief decision-maker on the subject last December. Although much of the department has been restored, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is still off-line and information technology continues to be a problem.

In recent months, he has taken an even more visible role, testifying before Congress on trust matters. At two recent Senate hearings, he defended the department in the wake of a federal judge's ruling holding Secretary Gale Norton in contempt.

Cason also has been attending task force meetings with tribal leaders. During a critical meeting late last month, he fended off complaints that the Bush administration was abandoning the process.

Meanwhile Griles -- who announced in a sworn testimonial nearly a year ago that he was in charge of Indian trust -- has quieted down after being blasted by a federal judge for nearly perjuring himself and after a court official criticized his coy Congressional appearances.

Cason nonetheless remains a key target in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) debacle. Attorneys representing 500,000 account holders whose funds have been mismanaged for more than a century plan to interview him under oath as part of a wide-ranging probe into the ouster of Tom Slonaker, an internal critic, and the department's continued resistance to court oversight.

The controversies are not new to Cason, whose nomination to an Agriculture Department post by President George H.W. Bush was rejected by Democrats and Republicans alike. His current post's lack of Senate confirmation availed him of a repeat of the November 1989 defeat.

Cason's prior work at the Interior during the Reagan administration played a factor in that dustup. He worked closely with Griles in the late 1980s when the Navajo Nation's favorable mining lease with Peabody Coal was suppressed.

Prior to joining the department, Cason was a senior executive at Unifrax Corp., a New York manufacturer of ceramic fiber and insulation products.

Relevant Documents:
Appointment of Department of the Interior Associate Deputy Secretary, B-290233 (GAO October 22, 2002)

Washington Post Profile:
Jim Cason: Ex-Reagan official tapped for Interior (8/24)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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