The Associated Press released an in-depth piece last weekend on what it said is a multimillion problem on reservations across the country: The mismanagement and abuse of federal funds coming to tribal governments and nonprofits.
The story details several instances of mismanagement of federal funds but notes that examples of fraud aren’t unique to any one tribe.
Fraud and theft occur across the range of nonprofits and local governments that get federal money. But tribes are five times as likely as other recipients of federal funds to have “material weaknesses” that create an opportunity for abuses, according to the review. Overall, 1 in 4 audits concluded that tribal governments, schools or housing authorities had a material weakness in their federally funded programs; the rate was 1 in 20 for nontribal programs.
Thousands of pages of audits and dozens of reports by federal investigators, obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act, show evidence of embezzlement, paychecks for do-nothing jobs and employees who over-billed hours and expenses. The audits, conducted by private firms, are required of tribes that spend more than $500,000 in federal funds annually.
What is the root of the problem? Too many programs with too few people to properly manage them? Is oversight lacking? How can it be fixed? The questions were addressed by several Native sources in the story.
Gary Collins, a former chairman of the business council who serves as the Northern Arapaho liaison with the state, said the tribe participates in more than 60 federal programs, a number that presents challenges for auditing and accountability. “There’s nothing really intentional,” he said of any shortcomings.
Since the early 1970s, federal policy has favored letting tribes manage housing, health, welfare, law enforcement and other programs as they see fit. As this “self-determination” approach took hold, many tribes developed the financial savvy and governmental infrastructure to handle millions in federal money without major incident. But others, like the Northern Arapaho, have not.
Federal officials try to coach tribes to self-correct rather than punish them — both in deference to tribal “self-determination” and because there aren’t enough staff to closely monitor the thousands of service contracts between tribes and the government.
“There were less people in that hallway than you would find working in a McDonald’s,” said Walter Lamar, a former deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ law enforcement program. His Washington, D.C., headquarters staff of six or seven oversaw 100 tribal police agencies that patrol an area one and a half times larger than New York state.
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Read the rest of the story here.