An investigation has found the Southern Ute Indian Tribe threatened retaliation on a federal employee who in 2012 tried to raise an alarm the tribe skirted environmental regulations for new oil and gas leases, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Thursday.
“Federal employees need to know that they will be protected for doing the right thing, especially when upholding the public interest in the face of pressure from powerful outside interests,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a prepared statement.
According to a report on the investigation, an employee with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who chose to remain anonymous, started working with the BIA in 2007 and was transferred to the bureau’s Southern Ute office in Ignacio in 2011.
Before the employee’s arrival, the bureau was understaffed and the Southern Ute tribe undertook many of its responsibilities in the drafting of oil and gas leases, which the BIA in turn approved without review.
As the BIA employee examined the lease documents, he found the tribe had inserted passages “that were beyond BIA’s scope of authority ... and/or were not appropriate for inclusion in a BIA document.”
For example, the tribe would exempt certain gas easements from an environmental impact statement even though no environmental assessment had been done, violating requirements in the National Environment Policy Act.
The employee in August 2012 told a co-worker and supervisor of the irregularities, which were deemed “substantial” and “serious.” The supervisor directed the employee and co-worker to bring these issues to the Southern Ute tribe.
However, the “Tribe’s reaction was hostile,” the report says. One particular tribal member, identified in the report as “C” took personal offense and felt her “rep was damaged.” “C” worked for the tribe developing oil and gas leases, and had previously worked for BIA.
Days later, the tribe passed a resolution that called for the two Bureau of Indian Affairs employees’ removal from the Ignacio office. The report says the husband of “C” – who was a senior Southern Ute official – signed the resolution.
In response to The Durango Herald’s inquiries, the Southern Ute tribe issued a news release Thursday afternoon that says it “strongly disagrees with the characterizations of the events” surrounding the incident, as well as the conclusions of the investigation. “The Tribe’s request for reassignment of these employees centered on their incompetence and disrespect for the Tribe,” the statement said. “Not environmental regulations ... The OSC conducted its investigation without the benefit of the Tribe’s input or interviews with individuals involved and simply got it wrong.”
According to the investigation report, the tribe claimed the BIA employees “spread negative information about the Tribe” and “failed to engage in positive working relationships.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs supervisor, reportedly, was at first hesitant to remove the employees, and in an email to senior officials at BIA wrote “it is … very concerning that removing the employees as the Tribe requests, is implying that the employees have done wrong, while realistically they were only doing their job.”
After the tribe learned of the BIA supervisor’s decision, Southern Ute officials met with “high level officials” at the Department of the Interior and BIA, demanding removal of the employees, with witnesses noting the tribe’s “powerful lobbying presence” in Washington D.C.
The BIA office eventually acquiesced, placing both employees on administrative leave in October 2012 until they could be reassigned. The co-worker ultimately was moved to another BIA office, and did not file a complaint.
However, when the BIA and the employee could not come to an agreement on a reassignment, the BIA in February 2013 initiated his “removal from service.” The employee filed a complaint under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Congress passed the act in 2012, declaring whistleblowers “serve the public interest” and “protecting whistle blowers leads to a more effective civil service.”
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigation agency tasked with such claims, found BIA’s actions were in violation of the protection act, which “prohibits an agency from taking personnel actions against an employee because the employee makes a protected disclosure.”
The investigation determined BIA decided to reassign the employee “at 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.”
In October, a settlement was reached to restore the employee’s federal employment in another BIA office and pay a lump sum for back pay and compensatory damage. The employee was listed in the report as a single father with children in his care, who at the time of the incident, received “superior job performance ratings and had no disciplinary history.”
Neither the BIA or Southern Ute tribe are subject to punishments, said Nick Schwellenbach, spokesman for U.S. Office of Special Counsel. The BIA provided the investigation evidence of three other employees reassigned at the Southern Ute tribe’s insistence.
Schwellenbach did not immediately know Thursday the scope of oil and gas leases approved and whether those leases drafted incorrectly would be subject to a re-evaluation. The BIA wrote in an emailed response late Thursday that all issues were “resolved” but provided no details.