A top Interior Department official charged with overseeing the disbursement of direct emergency relief to tribes failed to disclose that she is married to a lobbyist for an Alaska Native Corporation that is asking for relief funding, Western Values Project discovered. Kevin Sweeney, the husband of Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, is a registered lobbyist for Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which was among the first companies to apply for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funding intended for tribal governments.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Grijalva and Subcommittee Chairs sent a letter to Interior’s internal watchdog requesting an investigation into Sweeney’s activities related to Tribal COVID-19 relief funds on May 1st.
“It’s inexcusable that COVID-19 relief funds that are supposed to be going to struggling Native American communities have been delayed by officials trying to line the pockets of special interest lobbyists,” said Western Values Project Director Jayson O’Neill. “The fact that Assistant Secretary Sweeney meddled in this decision before she came clean about her and her family’s finances certainly raises some serious questions. This is yet one more example of the so-called public servants at Secretary Bernhardt’s corruption-plagued Interior Department trying to use government resources to enrich themselves and their families.”
Although US Code requires government officials to recuse themselves from working on projects that their spouses have a financial interest in, Assistant Secretary Sweeney advised the Treasury Department on how to distribute $8 billion in rescue funding Congress earmarked for Native American tribes to make Alaska Native Corporations eligible for the funds. Assistant Secretary Sweeney has already come under fire for trying to divert funds meant for tribal governments to help with coronavirus relief efforts to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations including her former employer, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Sweeney’s most recently available financial disclosure form did not denote her husband’s lobbying clients, only indicating income valued between $15,001-$50,000 from the firm.
WVP’s newly released research follows recent reporting that tribal governments have yet to receive any of the $8 billion they are owed in direct emergency relief from the CARES Act. Outside of New York and New Jersey, tribal nations have been some of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Read more about Tara Sweeney’s deep ties to big oil corporations and her former employer on Western Values Project’s Department of Influence website, and learn more about the special interests fueling the Trump administration at Accountable.US.
Assistant Secretary Of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney Directed CARES Act Money Intended For Tribal Governments To Her Former Employer– Contradicting Congress’s Intent
Assistant Secretary Of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney Played A Role In Directing CARES Act Money To Alaska Native Corporations And Away From Federally-Recognized Tribes. “A high-ranking Interior Department official is under fire over her role in securing access to billions of dollars in coronavirus aid for a handful of wealthy Alaska corporations, including one that previously employed her as a lobbyist and top executive. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney is among a small group of Interior officials advising the Treasury Department on how to distribute $8 billion in rescue funding Congress earmarked for Native American tribes.” [Politico, 04/16/20]
Members Of Congress Want To Clarify That The Money Was Indeed Intended For Tribal Governments. “— an allocation that some lawmakers now say they intended solely for the 574 federally recognized tribes hit hard by the economic shutdown. […] “Tara Sweeney is diverting funds for tribal governments during coronavirus to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted on Thursday. ‘Sweeney used to be an exec for an ANC, and she wants to profit!’” [Politico, 04/16/20]
Tom Cole, A Republican Co-Chair Of The House’s Native American Caucus, Agrees That The Funding Was Intended To Help Tribal Governments. “Still, some Capitol Hill staffers have since told POLITICO the provision was sloppily worded, and in late March several House lawmakers submitted official statements seeking to clarify that the money should go to cover budget shortfalls faced by tribal governments. ‘This fund would be used by tribal governments to offset the dramatic losses they are facing at this time,’ Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who co-chairs the House’s Native American Caucus, wrote in a colloquy entered into the Congressional Record.” [Politico, 04/16/20]
The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Paid Sweeney A Hefty Executive Salary.
Sweeney’s Husband Is A Registered Lobbyist For Another Alaska Native Corporation Asking For CARES Act Funding Intended For Tribal Governments
Sweeney’s Husband, Kevin Sweeney, Is A Lobbyist With Connections To Trump’s Campaign. “As the nomination of Tara Sweeney to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs sits in limbo, her husband has entered into a new deal. According to Alaska Public Media, a consulting company owned by Kevin Sweeney is being paid $15,000 a month to promote the state of Alaska’s natural gas project. The work is being done through Black Rock Group, a firm founded by Mike Dubke, who served as communications director for President Donald Trump for less than three months last year.” [Indianz.com, 04/09/18]
One Of Kevin Sweeney’s Active Lobbying Clients Is The Bristol Bay Native Corporation. [Senate Lobbying Disclosure Database, accessed 04/20/20]
Bristol Bay Native Corporation Was Among The First To Apply For CARES Act Funding Intended For Tribal Governments. “Alaska Native Corporations were among the first in line for an $8 billion coronavirus relief fund, preliminary data obtained by Indianz.Com shows, confirming fears of tribes in the lower 48 about for-profit entities receiving a share of money promised to their governments. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin announced the opening of the relief fund portal on Monday afternoon. By the end of the day, nearly every Alaska Native regional corporation — including ones with millions of acres of privately-owned fee land — had started the ‘certification’ process to obtain a share of COVID-19 relief money, according to the data. And as of Friday mid-day, all 12 Alaska Native regional corporations (ANCs) with land holdings applied, the data shows.” [Indianz.com, 04/17/20]
Bristol Bay Native Corporation Signed An Op-Ed Defending Alaska Native Corporations For Seeking CARES Act Funding. [Anchorage Daily News, 04/18/20]
The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Leased ANWR Tracts To BP And Chevron For $22 Million In 2017
The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Sold Leases To BP And Chevron For $22 Million After Congress Opened Up ANWR To Oil And Gas Drilling In 2017. “The Alaska Native regional corporation for the North Slope collected $22.5 million from a pair of oil companies after Congress opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to drilling in 2017, according to corporate documents. Arctic Slope Regional Corp., whose 13,000 Alaska Native shareholders own the oil rights to 140 square miles along the coastal plain, has long been one of the most aggressive advocates for opening the refuge to oil development. The payment, referenced in ASRC’s latest annual report, underscores just how much the corporation had to gain from the congressional action. It stands to benefit further if the oil companies, BP and Chevron, ultimately find and produce petroleum on its property.” [Alaska Public Media, 01/08/20]
BP Was A Key Lobbyist In Convincing The Trump Administration To Open ANWR To Oil & Gas Extraction. “Oil major BP played a key role in lobbying the Trump administration to allow oil and gas drilling in two previously protected areas of the Alaskan Arctic, Unearthed can reveal. Opening up the areas to exploration poses significant risks to the environment and will undermine efforts to meet the Paris climate targets to prevent catastrophic climate change. Writing to Trump administration officials, the company first lobbied for more areas to be opened up to drilling off the US coast and then welcomed plans to lease swathes of the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea for oil and gas exploration, according to documents seen by Unearthed.” [Unearthed, 05/19/19]
When Asked About The Arctic Slope’s BP And Chevron Leases As Part Of Her Confirmation Hearing, Sweeney Refused To Provide An Answer. In the QFRs following Sweeny’s confirmation hearing, Senator Cantwell asked, “Ms. Sweeney, we also understand that there are lease agreements for ASRC lands in the Arctic Refuge with BP and Chevron/ Texaco. Again, to make sure that we understand the potential conflicts that could come into plan with any BIA work related to these companies, please describe the details of these lease agreements and whether you think any of these arrangements will require you to recuse yourself from any matter that potentially involves BP or Chevron.” [Tara Sweeney Confirmation QFR, 05/09/18]
BP Is In Negotiations To Sell Its Alaska Operations, But That Deal May Be In Limbo As Oil Markets Destabilize
BP Announced Plans To Sell All Its Alaska Operations To Hilcorp In August 2017. “BP today announced that it has agreed to sell its entire business in Alaska to Hilcorp Alaska, based in Anchorage, Alaska. Under the terms of the agreement, Hilcorp will purchase all of BP’s interests in the state for a total consideration of $5.6 billion. The sale will include BP’s entire upstream and midstream business in the state, including BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., that owns all of BP’s upstream oil and gas interests in Alaska, and BP Pipelines (Alaska) Inc.’s interest in the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS).” [BP, 08/27/19]
But Banks Are Skeptical About Financing Hilcorp’s Purchase Of BP’s Alaska Operations. ”BP PLC’s sale of its Alaskan business is in jeopardy after a group of banks balked at financing the $5.6 billion deal to buyer Hilcorp Energy Co. amid a historic rout of oil and gas prices, according to people familiar with the deal. A failure to complete the deal would be a blow to BP, which already has the highest debt labels– in relation to its size– among the major oil companies and is counting on the transaction to help reduce its debt. It is the largest deal involving oil and gas production assets globally.” [Wall Street Journal, 04/09/20]
Regulators In Alaska Are Concerned About Hilcorp’s Ability To Purchase BP’s Alaska Operations. “State regulators have asked Hilcorp, the independent oil company buying BP’s Alaska assets, to disclose whether and how the pandemic-driven crash in oil prices will affect its ability to seal the $5.6 billion deal. […] Hilcorp has not said exactly how it plans to raise the full $5.6 billion, but ratings agencies have said that heavy borrowing could cause them to reduce the company’s credit rating. Two watchdog groups also say they’re concerned about whether Hilcorp’s debt levels could affect its ability to operate safely.” [Alaska Public Media, 04/03/20]
Sweeney’s Role In Directing Relief Money To Her Former Employer Is Broadly Opposed By Tribal Governments, Including In Alaska
Great Plains Tribes Calling For The Removal Of Tara Sweeney For Her Role In Diverting CARES Funds Designated For Tribes To Alaska Native Corporations. “A group of tribal leaders from North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska is calling for the removal of Tara Sweeney from the position of assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department over the inclusion of Alaska Native corporations in emergency money for tribes. The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association contends Alaska Native corporations are not tribes and should not be allotted any of the $8 billion set aside for them by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The association is made up of more than a dozen tribal chairmen and presidents from 16 tribes.” [Indian Country Today, 04/14/20]
Three Alaska Tribes Have Joined A Lawsuit To Stop Alaska Native Corporations From Receiving CARES Act Funds. “Three Alaska tribes have joined a federal lawsuit that seeks to stop Alaska Native corporations from receiving a share of $8 billion in federal coronavirus funding. The lawsuit was filed in the district court of Washington D.C. on Friday by the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, the Tulalip Tribes and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. The tribes from Washington and Maine are joined by three Alaska tribes: Akiak Native Community, Asa’carsamiut Tribe and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.” [KTUU, 04/17/20]
The National Congress of American Indians Says Sweeney’s Choice “‘Doesn’t Look Good.” “The National Congress of American Indians has argued that the language in the law doesn’t allow for the corporations to receive aid designated for tribes. The group hasn’t called for Sweeney to resign, but Allis said she should have recused herself from the matter because of her financial stake in Arctic Slope Regional. ‘It just doesn’t look good,’ he said. ‘Right or wrong, it doesn’t look good.’” [Politico, 04/16/20]
The Southern Ute Tribe Applied For CARES Act Funds On Wednesday, April 15th, And Had Received Nothing As Of April 20th. “On Monday, April 13, 2020, all state, local and tribal governments were instructed to download information into a secure portal at the Department of Treasury so that they could receive their CARES Act funds. For tribes and tribal businesses, the information to be provided included tribal membership, lands held in trust and in fee, expenditures, and bank account information in which the funds were to be deposited. The first portion of the funds were to be deposited into the Tribe’s bank account within approximately 24 hours of filing the certification. Although the Southern Ute Indian Tribe filed its certification on Wednesday morning, no funds have been received.” [Indian Country Today, 04/20/20]
The Southern Ute Tribe Also Says Treasury Has Unlawfully Released Sensitive Information Provided By Tribes. “To make matters worse, on Friday evening we learned that the information provided to the Department of Treasury by every tribe in the country had been unlawfully released. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has taken steps to make sure that its bank account is secure. But more importantly, the unlawful actions by one or more individuals at the federal government to leak this confidential information must be immediately investigated. We call upon the Department of Justice to immediately do so.” [Indian Country Today, 04/20/20]