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Southern Utes contest accusations of retaliation against whistleblower

Tribe says Bureau of Indian Affairs mismanagement is well documented
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe on Wednesday contested claims of a recent finding that the tribe threatened retaliation against two federal employees.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe responded to claims it threatened retaliation against “whistleblowers,” asserting that the federal employees played a major role in gross mismanagement of the tribe’s resources, which resulted in a $126 million settlement from the U.S. government in September.

Last week, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel – an independent federal investigative agency – released a report that said the Southern Ute tribe in 2012 threatened to remove two Bureau of Indian Affairs employees after they had raised concern the tribe was incorrectly drafting oil and gas leases.

When initial efforts to remove the employees failed, the special counsel’s report says the Southern Ute tribe released a “powerful lobby” to high-ranking officials in Washington D.C., which resulted in the eventual reassignment of one employee and the firing of the other in February 2013.

The BIA employee who was fired filed a complaint under the Whistleblower Protection Act. Last Friday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced the employee was in the right, and reached a settlement for reinstatement of his position and awarded backpay and compensatory damages.

The investigation determined BIA reassigned the employees “at the behest of the Tribe knowing that the Tribe made this demand with retaliatory animus because some of its members were upset and embarrassed by the employee’s disclosure.”

However, the Southern Ute tribe on Wednesday sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel contesting the account of the BIA employee’s time at the bureau’s office in Ignacio, claiming the special counsel had not even informed the tribe of the investigation.

“We believe that the nationwide release of this confidential report (without minimal courtesy of any notice to the Tribe) compounds its mistaken conclusions and was a serious disservice to the Tribe and the public,” said the letter, signed by Southern Ute Chairman Clement Frost.

The Southern Ute tribe asserts that relations between the BIA and the tribe were strained prior to the two employees’ arrival in 2010 and 2011, saying the bureau had allowed certain documents and records to “fall into a chaotic state of disarray,” among other complications.

As a result, ”fairly standard transactions, like simple grants of easements for a small pipeline or a connection to an electric system, languished and, in numerous cases were lost by the agency,” the letter said, costing the tribe millions in estimated revenue.

The tribe alleges that when the two BIA employees entered the situation, what began as passive aggressive behavior turned into active attempts to suppress the tribe’s long-standing protocols on oil and gas leases.

“Effectively, they attempted to hold the Tribe’s financial livelihood hostage, not to compliance with lawful requirements but to their conflicting judgment,” the letter claims.

After the employees were removed from the Ignacio office, Frost said the BIA and tribe were able to break the logjam on processing transactions and improve many of the outstanding issues between the two entities.

A February 2016 Office of Inspector General report painstakingly details the many ways the BIA was “not effectively fulfilling its tribal energy-related obligations” during a period that includes, and goes beyond, the two BIA staffers’ employment.

Among other inefficiencies, the OIG found stacks of records piled 5 feet high along walls, loose documents shoved into empty closets and desks, which defined a general fault on the bureau for improperly handling the tribe’s affairs.

BIA staff members, too, were found not properly trained to handle oil and gas leases, and the agency did not have a comprehensive policy to guide and regulate the tribe’s energy activities, according to the report.

The OIG made seven recommendations to the BIA to improve operations in Ignacio.

In September, the tribe and the U.S. government reached a settlement in a 2013 “breach of trust” case that detailed the “litany of problems in BIA’s control and oversight of (Indian trust) accounts.”

The Southern Ute tribe was awarded $126 million.

“In failing to consult with the Tribe, OSC missed an opportunity to protect the legitimate interest of Whistleblowers and to understand the systemic deficiencies that tribes are expected to endure powerlessly in the face of a dysfunctional system,” Clements wrote. “At the very least, we believe we are entitled to a public apology.”

The Office of Special Counsel and BIA were not immediately available Thursday for comment.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Southern Ute letter (PDF)

Jun 19, 2021
Report: Southern Ute tribe threatened oil and gas lease whistleblower
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