Interior watchdog to probe why tribal stimulus was steered to corporations

Interior watchdog to probe why tribal stimulus was steered to corporations
© Greg Nash

The Department of the Interior’s internal watchdog has kicked off a probe into whether a top official inappropriately tried to steer coronavirus stimulus funds.

The letter from Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) comes as several Democratic lawmakers requested an investigation into Tara Sweeney, Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

Sweeney had assisted the Treasury Department in determining how to distribute $8 billion on CARES funding that Congress set aside for tribal governments.

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But her handling of the issue led to calls for her resignation after for-profit companies, including one Sweeney used to work for, would have been eligible for the payments.

Forms to apply for the funding, however, asked applicants to list either their total tribal population or their number of shareholders, a nod to so-called Alaska Native Corporations (ANC) that earn money from vast forrest and oil holdings.

The inclusion of ANCs irked other tribes as well as lawmakers who said the funds were intended for tribal governments, not businesses. Sweeney’s previous employer, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, is one of the companies that stood to benefit from the stimulus funding.

“Her active financial interest in Arctic Slope raises questions about whether her involvement in determining ANCs would be eligible for CARES Act funding specifically intended for federally recognized tribal governments violated ethics rules and/or pledges,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-A.Z.) wrote in a letter to Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt earlier this month. 

That letter was signed by six other representatives, while Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 | Commerce Department led 'flawed process' on Sharpiegate, watchdog finds | EPA to end policy suspending pollution monitoring by end of summer House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 MORE (D-N.M.) made a similar request.

A response to the lawmakers obtained by The Hill doesn’t name Sweeney outright, but OIG says it will undertake a review “to determine whether there was adherence to ethics rules and regulations and compliance with the ethics pledge as it relates to CARES Act funding.”

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In a statement, Interior claimed Sweeney had not broken any laws.

“Assistant Secretary Sweeney is upholding her ethical responsibilities and complies with all laws and regulations. She relies on the advice of career ethics officials to ensure compliance with applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.”

It was only last week that tribes first began receiving part of the $8 billion in payments, with Treasury handing out the first 60 percent of the funds more than a month after Congress first passed the CARES Act. 

The payments were delayed after tribes sued over plans to distribute funding to the Alaska-based corporations--a move that was blocked in court

“These formal reviews into potential wrongdoing related to the disbursement of CARES Act funds reserved for Tribal governments are absolutely necessary. As a central pillar of the federal government's coronavirus pandemic relief for Indian Country, the allocation and distribution of this funding to Indian Country must be done quickly, without bias, and without the appearance of any impropriety,” Udall said in a release.

Native American communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus, flooding rural and tribal hospital systems with patients.

Data released by the Navajo Nation on Sunday showed the tribe has more coronavirus cases per capita than any state in the U.S.

Meanwhile, tribes are still waiting for Treasury to disperse the other 40 percent in CARES funding.

That funding will be handed out “at a later date,” once tribes share the number of people they employ.

OIG’s response also reveals it has already “initiated an investigation into allegations that DOI improperly released sensitive data from tribal governments’ CARES Act applications.”

Udall had also requested the review after reports that data tribes submitted while applying for CARES funding was shared with those outside the executive branch.

“Tribal governments submitted this proprietary data to the portal for the purpose of aiding their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the expectation that it would be kept and maintained in confidence,” Udall wrote to OIG in late April.

Interior said it had likewise requested a review of the leaked data.

“At the time when this was first reported, the Secretary requested the Inspector General review the matter of the CARES Act data,” the agency said by email.