NASHVILLE, Tenn. - After years of lobbying, the long-sought move of the BIA's Eastern Regional office to this more convenient location is receiving final approval, says James Martin, executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes.
The BIA eastern office will relocate from BIA headquarters near Washington, D.C., to a three-story building in Nashville owned jointly by the Indian Health Service and USET.
USET has called for the move for at least five years because the BIA simply wasn't able to find employees willing to move to the high-cost D.C. suburbs, Martin said. Of the 56 positions scheduled for the eastern regional office, Martin said only 15 were filled.
Although the Nashville openings weren't yet advertised, he said, "We've already had interest from people who want to come here, from member tribes."
He said better service would result almost immediately.
News of the move set off a minor controversy. Some funds to pay the estimated $1.5 million cost of the move could potentially come from unused Tribal Priority Allocations returned to the BIA by the casino-rich Oneida and Mohegan nations. A reporter covering Indian gaming for the Las Vegas Review-Journal interpreted the possibility to mean that the Oneidas and Mohegans were paying for the move.
His report prompted U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a member of the Senate Indian Affairs and Appropriations committees, to call the alleged arrangement "a terrible conflict of interest."
The Oneida Nation strongly supports the BIA move to Nashville, spokesman Mark Emery said. In turning back last year's TPA funds to Washington, the nation asked that $1 million be made available to fund the move. Emery said, however, the final decision on using the money remains with the federal government.
BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said congressional appropriations committees had to approve funding for the move.
The Oneida Nation first returned BIA funds in 1999, giving back $2.6 million. It asked the BIA to redistribute most of the money to other Iroquois and USET tribes without casino wealth.
Keller George, a member of the Oneida Men's Council, is president of USET, which represents all but two of the 26 federally recognized tribes in the BIA's eastern region. Jayne Fawcett, former vice chairwoman of the Mohegan tribe, is USET Treasurer. Fawcett was not available for comment.
USET's Martin, however, said the "ultimate problem with the move was that it was too logical, too reasonable.
"For a building to have two government offices in it, so that a tribe could come and deal with both at one time, was just too logical."
Martin said that USET was part owner of the Nashville office building along with the Indian Health Service, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services. "It was built under the Health Care Improvement Act which authorizes federal agencies to enter into agreements with federally recognized tribes or Indian organizations."
Over the years, Martin said the IHS downsized as tribes took over more of its services, freeing up space that would be occupied by the BIA. The IHS uses about 60 percent of the 30,000 square feet in the building, he said. The BIA eastern region would take up about 10,000 square feet. The remainder of the building is used by USET.
USET came to Nashville as a convenient central location in the '70s as it expanded from its base in the southeastern tribes, Martin said. Originally based in Atlanta, Ga., it moved to Sarasota, Fla. Its membership now covers roughly the same territory as the BIA eastern region.
Martin avoided comment on the historical irony that eastern tribes were based in the hometown of Andrew Jackson who wanted them moved west of the Mississippi. "I don't care to bring that up."
BIA Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell told the Las Vegas paper she hoped to begin the move by April and complete it by July 1. She said it would cost a minimum of $1.2 million, but that she was determined to keep it under $1.5 million.
So far none of the TPA turn-back money has been spent on the move, the BIA said. Blackwell denied it would produce any conflict. "This move really has nothing to do with influencing policy."