Energy & Environment

Employee error caused government leak of tribal data, watchdog finds

Employees at the Treasury Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were responsible for leaking a spreadsheet of proprietary data from the nation's tribes, according to a new report from a government watchdog.

A report from the Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General (OIG) found employees "did not look at the entire spreadsheet before forwarding [an] email and did not realize the spreadsheet contained potentially confidential information."

Employees told the OIG the emails containing the spreadsheet were sent as a way to remind tribes to apply for $8 billion in CARES Act funding set aside for tribal governments, not realizing the sensitive data was attached. The data was then shared outside the government, including with other tribes. 

"The spreadsheet included the names of the tribes that submitted the information; the tribes' authorized representatives' names, titles, and contact information (including phone number and email); and other self-reported amounts for the tribes' population, land base, employees, and expenditures. Several stakeholders later asserted that some of the details included in the spreadsheet were sensitive and proprietary," the OIG wrote, noting that this violates government policy requiring the protection of sensitive data.

The leak was revealed in April amid a lawsuit from tribes challenging a government decision to release CARES Act funding to so-called Alaska Native Corporations, which have vast land holdings and secure significant profits from timber and oil sales that are then shared with tribal members.

The lawsuits delayed the distribution of funding to tribes for months.

"The administration leaked tribes' confidential financial records to the public much faster than it sent them aid, and yet Republicans continue to be confused about why so many tribes have distrusted the federal government for so long," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, who requested the report, said in a statement.

"Public trust in the competence and integrity of the executive branch is never more important than in the midst of a global health crisis. ... This was a shameful failure of federal relations with Indian Country," he added.

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