WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has offered his harshest rebuke yet against IHS officials over the way they have responded to a congressional investigation of alleged misdeeds at some of the federal agency’s regional offices.
“I am not satisfied by their response,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., soon after a Sept. 28 SCIA hearing during which he revealed that IHS officials had withheld information that had been requested by his committee.
“I am prepared to issue subpoenas,” the senator said. “I have them on my desk; we’ll let you know.”
The chairman’s pledge came after IHS provided volumes of information on operations at area offices, especially the one in Aberdeen, S.D., in response to congressional investigations of mismanagement throughout the year.
But the information provided so far is not enough, according to Dorgan, especially in the face of what he sees as a serious omission involving the leave of a top official at the agency’s increasingly scrutinized Aberdeen office.
Dorgan explained during the hearing that he had received surprise information from sources who informed him that Shelly R. Harris, deputy director of the regional office in question, has been on paid leave for over a year. During that time, she has drawn a $125,109 annual salary, while under an internal investigation.
The senator was agitated that the information had not come from Charlene Red Thunder, the director of the office, and other top IHS officials. He said his office had asked explicitly for such information.
When Dorgan asked Red Thunder about the matter during the SCIA hearing, she responded that Harris had been “working from home” over the months, while being investigated. She would not say why the employee has been on leave, or why she did not provide the information to Congress when asked for it.
“It is very distressing to me,” Dorgan said later, adding that he has “serious misgivings” about Red Thunder’s leadership. He said he is curious why the deputy director has not been let go after all this time – time that Red Thunder has been overseeing the crux of the situation. He believes the question deserves an on-the-record response.
Adding to Dorgan’s questions about Red Thunder’s response, she said at one point during the hearing that her first language is Lakota, so she would need extra time to process his questioning on certain staff issues involving her leadership decisions.
According to Red Thunder’s biography, she has been with IHS since 1986 in various capacities. Some tribal leaders have expressed support for her work, believing her to be a strong reformer. Some believe that her efforts have led to retaliation from employees who may not like her leadership style, making her job more difficult.
Thomas Sweeney, a spokesman for the agency, later responded to the Harris situation, saying, “Owing to the Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. 552a), this personnel information cannot be made public.”
“They say that about everything,” the senator said later, referring to Sweeney’s personnel policy-based response. He added that Native Americans need to know why a deputy director has received a six-figure salary for so long without doing any or little work.
“The American people have a right to know.”
Dorgan added that some personnel information has already been provided through the course of the investigation, but the Harris situation seemed purposely left out.
The chairman has mentioned the possibility of subpoenaing information a few times already over recent months, so it remains to be seen if he will do so this time.
Beyond the withheld information, various management misdeeds have been alleged and uncovered at the Aberdeen office to date – many that are believed to have negatively affected patient care. The office serves more than 100,000 Native Americans on reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.
Initial findings from an ongoing Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General investigation indicate widespread dysfunction, including problems dealing with employees, untrained doctors and nurses, stolen drugs, and mismanaged billing.
Gerald Roy, a OIG investigations deputy director, presented the findings during the SCIA hearing. He said in his opening statement that he understands IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux and regional director Red Thunder “inherited many of these problems, and only had a short time to address them.”
Dorgan said his misgivings do not extend to Roubideaux, who became director of IHS last year, with his strong support.
“It’s too early to tell,” the senator said, mentioning her short time in service and the fact that she has “inherited a wealth of problems.” He noted that Roubideaux’ predecessor, Robert McSwain, was perceived to have issues responding to the managerial problems of the agency, which should serve as a cautionary tale.
While Dorgan remains supportive of Roubideaux, they part ways when it comes to Red Thunder’s leadership. The national IHS director endorsed Red Thunder during her SCIA testimony – a point spokesman Sweeney later underscored, saying, “As Dr. Roubideaux stated in her testimony, she has full confidence in Charlene Red Thunder and her work. …”
Sweeney also noted the testimony of Ron His Horse Is Thunder, director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, who testified that he and tribal leaders in the Aberdeen area believe Red Thunder to be the best Aberdeen area director they have worked with.
As to what he will do next, Dorgan, who is set to retire at the end of his term in January, pledged to proceed strongly with his IHS investigation for the rest of his days in office.
“I’m going to do everything I can between now and the end of the year to see that this situation is resolved.”