The New York Times is reporting that the Department of the Interior Inspector General – the agency’s internal watchdog – launched an investigation into President Trump’s Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney for potentially violating federal ethics laws and leaking sensitive tribal government information. In response, Western Values Project Director Jayson O’Neill issued the following statement:
“Amorality, incompetence, and corruption is what we come to expect from President Trump and his swamp team. After exposing Assistant Sec. Tara Sweeney and her lobbyist husband’s own self-dealing, launching an investigation is a good first step but if President Trump and Interior Secretary Bernhardt had any scruples, she would have been fired weeks ago. Instead, Sweeney’s immoral and possibly illegal actions that delayed and derailed these needed relief funds could continue to cause lives to be lost.”
According to the Times, Interior’s inspector general confirmed to New Mexico Senator Tom Udall that the agency watchdog started investigating after allegations that the Interior Department had inappropriately leaked sensitive tribal data. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has also requested all “departmental ethics guidance and/or waivers granted to Ms. Sweeney related to her potential financial conflicts of interest, direct or imputed to her.”
New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich requested the investigation after Sweeney and Interior Secretary Bernhardt were among a small group of Interior officials that advised the Treasury Department to make Alaska Native Corporations eligible for the tribal government rescue funding. After tribes were forced to file suit over the eligibility determination, sensitive tribal government data was leaked by Trump officials in what is being described as ‘shoddy document handling practices.’ The data breach will have lasting detrimental impacts according to tribal officials.
Astoundingly, Western Values Project exposed that Sweeney’s lobbyist husband, Kevin Sweeney, who represents another corporation deemed eligible under her recommendation was one of the first to apply for the coronavirus relief monies. Sweeney’s conflicted past and her work for one of the corporations poised to receive relief monies that she still has a financial interest in have been well documented. Federal law requires government officials to disclose personal conflicts, consult ethics officials before participating in matters that they may be conflicted on, and requires government officials to recuse themselves from working on projects that their family or spouses have a financial interest in. It doesn’t appear that Sweeney did any of it.
Trump’s Interior and Treasury Department’s released a joint statement last week that they would finally begin distributing part of the funds to tribal governments but would withhold billions for Alaska Native Corporations until pending litigation relating to their eligibility is resolved. Native American tribes hit with some of the highest rates of coronavirus infections per capita are only now beginning to receive a portion of the $8 billion in coronavirus pandemic relief funds allocated by Congress in the CARES Act which was passed nearly six weeks ago.
New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, who fought for the tribal government relief funds to be included in the act, told Public News Service that the ‘announcement comes weeks too late and billions of dollars short.’ The Navajo Nation is reporting one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country.
View Western Values Project’s additional research here.
Federal law 5 C.F.R. § 2635.502(a) requires that if an employee knows that a particular matter involving specific parties is likely to have a direct and predictable effect on the financial interest of a member of his/her household, or knows that a person with whom he/she has a covered relationship is or represents a party to such matter, and where the employee determines that the circumstances would cause a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts to question his/her impartiality in the matter, the employee should not participate in the matter unless he/she has informed the Designated Ethics Official of the appearance problem and received written authorization from the Designated Ethics Official to participate in the matter.
18 U.S.C. § 208, the basic criminal conflict of interest statute, prohibits an executive branch employee from participating personally and substantially in a particular Government matter that will affect his own financial interests, as well as the financial interests of: His spouse or minor child; His general partner; An organization in which he serves as an officer, director, trustee, general partner or employee; and A person with whom he is negotiating for or has an arrangement concerning prospective employment.