WASHINGTON – Federal officials appear to have violated ethics rules governing impartiality in awarding a contract to evaluate schools attended by tens of thousands of Native American students, a federal watchdog says.
The report comes as President Barack Obama makes high-profile promises to fix the schools, which are among the nation’s lowest performing and have been plagued by crumbling buildings needing $1 billion in repairs.
It is the latest to highlight problems in the management and oversight of the schools.
The Interior Department’s inspector general investigation concerned an $800,000-plus contract awarded early in Obama’s term to assess the schools’ management and student achievement. The main focus was Brian Drapeaux, who served as chief of staff of the department’s Bureau of Indian Education, or BIE, when the contract was issued and later became acting director.
The initial contract had been awarded to Personal Group Inc., a South Dakota-based company, where Drapeaux had worked on separate occasions, including within 12 months of joining the Interior Department.
A department contract specialist raised conflict of interest concerns and canceled the contract and said the company, known as PerGroup, could not participate in the contract at any level and that all key decision makers should certify that there was no conflict of interest.
She alleged in 2011 that she had been removed from handling the contract because of her actions.
Nevertheless, the IG concluded, PerGroup was allowed to stay on the project as a subcontractor under another company and was responsible for 41 percent of the contractual work.
Keith Moore, who served as director of BIE until 2012, along with Drapeaux maintained a longstanding friendship with PerGroup, according to the inspector general.
The report said the two officials “appear to have acted in violation of federal ethics regulations governing impartiality … and the use of public office for private gain.”
“Finally,” it said, “other BIE officials who knew of these conflicts of interest chose to ignore them during the procurement process.”
The IG said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia had declined to prosecute the case but referred it back to the Interior Department for further action, which was taken on Sept. 30.
“This issue is considered resolved and no further action will be taken,” Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said in an email on Friday. She said the department would not reveal the action because of privacy reasons.
Kershaw said the department did not adopt the contractor’s recommendations.
Drapeaux and Moore declined to comment. Officials from PerGoup did not respond to requests for comment.
Obama addressed the challenges facing Native American youth in a historic visit to an Indian reservation last summer and again at the White House summit this week.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has announced a series of steps to restructure the federal bureaucracy that oversees the schools and turn more control over tribes.
Just this week as part of the White House summit on Native Americans, Jewell reaffirmed the federal government’s historic failures in connection with the schools, which goes back to the 19th century when many Native American children were forcibly assimilated in boarding schools away from their families. The government has a treaty and trust responsibility to run them, and about 40,000 students attend the more than 180 schools.
The IG report follows one by the Government Accountability Office that found the schools had millions in unaccounted for dollars, including money for special education.
The IG’s findings were posted initially online on Tuesday, but the IG’s office temporarily took the report down to make minor adjustments. It was reposted Friday.