Probe Finds ‘Shocking’ Corruption : Senate to Air Problems in Indian Affairs

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Times Staff Writer

Indian programs run by the federal government are riddled with “shocking” corruption, including contract fraud, organized crime and sexual abuse of children, the chairman of a special Senate investigating panel said Sunday.

Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who heads the Select Committee on Indian Affairs investigations subcommittee, also said in an interview that the problem of illegal gambling involving Indians “seems to be especially bad in California.”

Federal officials said that of an estimated 110 illegal gaming operations being run on reservations nationwide, a substantial number are in California, where the Indian population of 210,000 is the largest of any state.


Payoffs for Contracts

DeConcini said a yearlong investigation by the committee, which is to open hearings on its findings today, uncovered widespread instances of contractors paying large sums to tribal leaders and federal employees in order to do business on tribal lands. The hearings will feature secretly taped conversations with an Indian leader who allegedly incriminated himself.

Also, the investigators found numerous “shell companies” set up by non-Indians to take advantage of federal programs under which minority firms are awarded government contracts, DeConcini said. He said there is “a great amount of fraud being perpetrated” by non-Indian firms pretending to be run by Indians.

The purpose of the investigations, DeConcini said, “is to find out whether Indian programs are getting to Indians and to document the waste of taxpayers’ money.” The findings “are going to be shocking,” he said.

In setting up the investigation last year, Congress was reacting to news accounts in Arizona of widespread abuses in the $3-billion federal system of aid to American Indians, many of whom are impoverished. The corruption, lawmakers said, has resulted in Indian communities losing millions of dollars.

2 Series of Hearings

Hearings into the alleged corruption are to last two to three weeks. Then, after a scheduled break, the committee plans further hearings into what DeConcini called “the very complex problems” of managing natural resources on Indian lands. Among the issues involved will be an inventory of oil and gas and drainage and an examination of the “lack of accountability” for the way federal programs are being run, DeConcini said. The second series of hearings is expected to begin in April.

Speaking of the hearings opening today, the senator said the investigators found a “very discouraging” number of “sexual abuses of Indian children in schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” the Interior Department agency that administers federal assistance programs for the nation’s 1.4 million American Indians. Moreover, DeConcini added, the bureau has shown a “lack of any swift response to complaints.”


Indian Agents Defended

Carl Shaw of the Bureau of Indian Affairs defended its work force of 15,000 people, 82% of whom are Indians. He said most of them are “dedicated employees who are trying to improve life on reservations.”

Shaw said some Indians may be corrupt, but he likened the hundreds of tribal leaders around the country to the officials of state and city governments, saying many of them also have been proven to be corrupt.

“We don’t know what the Senate committee has uncovered,” he said. “We have cooperated fully with the investigation, and I hope if there is any wrongdoing, those wrongdoers will pay for what they have done wrong.”