Neal A. McCaleb, whose 17 months as the Bush administration’s top official for Indian programs have been marred by controversy concerning management of Indian trust funds, has given notice he will retire at the end of the year.
“It is with great reluctance, deep regret and a sense of personal loss that I accept the retirement of Neal McCaleb,” Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said in a statement. “Neal serves as an extremely valuable member of my leadership team and he will be very difficult to replace.”
During his tenure as assistant secretary for Indian affairs, McCaleb’s efforts were focused on untangling a troubled trust fund for royalties to Indians that has been mismanaged for more than a century.
In September, he and Norton were held in contempt of court by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth for failing to comply with Lamberth’s order to fix the trust fund, which manages $500 million a year in oil, gas, mining and timber royalties from Indian lands, and concealing their failure to do so.
“The constraints imposed by ever-present litigation have taken their toll,” McCaleb said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the litigation has taken first priority in too many activities, thus distracting attention from the other important goals that could provide more long-term funding for Indian country.”
He sought to make sweeping changes to the trust fund management, but met initial resistance from Indian leaders and negotiations bogged down and were broken off.
McCaleb argued for increased economic opportunity on Indian reservations and additional spending for Indian education.
He was also a proponent of the administration’s aborted efforts to privatize some Indian schools and pressed for increased energy production on reservations, a component of President Bush’s energy policy.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees the education of 50,000 Indian schoolchildren and administers roughly 2,000 reservation law enforcement officers.
The Indian trust fund that dominated McCaleb’s tenure was established in 1887, when Congress assigned American Indians small parcels of land and directed the Interior Department to manage the royalties. For more than a century, an untold amount of money meant for some of the nation’s poorest residents was lost, stolen or never collected.
A group of Indians sued in 1996, claiming the government squandered between $10 billion and $40 billion.
Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to fix the management problems and to put together an accounting of what the Indians are owed.
In September, Lamberth said Norton and McCaleb committed “fraud on the court” in concealing the failures to fix the fund.
McCaleb, 67, is a member of the Chickasaw tribe and was transportation secretary in Oklahoma before he was tapped by Bush to head the BIA.
He was a civil engineer and businessman and a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982. He ran for governor in 1982, losing in the Republican primary.
He was also appointed to Indian economic development panels by Presidents Nixon and Reagan.