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Report slams BIA Alaska roads program

Only $3 to $4M in roads projects had physical oversight or verification of work completion

Posted: Monday, May 25, 2009

ANCHORAGE - The federal Interior Department is squeezing the flow of economic stimulus funds for the Alaska roads program of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The action is a result of an inspector general's report alleging mismanagement.

"Given the history, we are proceeding with an abundance of caution and additional oversight on all projects." Interior department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said. "Our plan has been and will continue to be that funds will only be distributed once we determine that there are sufficient controls over spending and accountability in place."

Barkoff said the Alaska roads program will receive stimulus funds, but added that her agency is determining which projects in Alaska will receive money on a case by case basis. The BIA is part of the Interior Department.

The February report by the department's inspector general, Earl Devaney, said the Alaska regional office's consistent decision to ignore sound management practices has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars.

The report said that has left Native Americans without needed infrastructure.

Niles Cesar, who has directed the BIA's Alaska regional office since 1990, could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday afternoon.

The Interior department said a new team is now in place overseeing the roads program. The department also has launched a "corrective action plan" that includes a reporting and monitoring system.

At issue is the BIA Alaska's "Indian Reservation Roads Program." In states like Alaska where indigenous groups generally do not have reservations, public roads that serve Native communities are eligible for funds through grant requests.

According to the inspector general's report, $32 million in program funding went to Alaska Native communities annually but only about $3 to $4 million in roads projects had physical oversight or verification of work completion. The report conceded severe understaffing, but said that has long been a problem and the issues were not corrected despite the program apparently ending up with surplus operations money.

Devaney wrote a memo to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar saying "the region's internal management controls have completely broken down, enabling wage-grade employees to earn more than $100,000 in a given year without explanation."

The inspector's report said overtime pay claimed by unsupervised employees was approved with no verification.

The report also criticized specific projects, including one in which more than $1.6 million was estimated to have been spent on unauthorized and unnecessary work. The report said that more than six years later, "this project is still considered dormant with the main road incomplete."

Also noted, the inspector general found "several other projects that indicated similar mismanagement and potential loss or theft of funds."

Ron King, chief of surface transportation programs for the Alaska Department of Transportation, said the many tribal transportation directors he's worked with over the past few years have been hard working and dedicated to improving transportation in their communities.

"The report does not reflect my personal experience," King said. "But of course there are 227 tribes and obviously someone may not have done everything right or at least did not have all of the checks and balances in place."

The report urged caution in giving federal economic stimulus money to the program.

More than $3 million in stimulus money has been lined up for BIA road and bridge work in the state. But it's not clear how much will end up distributed through tribal applications to this program.



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