Good news for the Oglala, but clock is ticking

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RAPID CITY, S.D. - When Donna Danker of the accounting firm Ketel Thorstenson delivered certification of the Oglala Sioux Tribe's financial system at a finance committee meeting, many tribal officials breathed a sigh of relief.

The highly prized certification has been a virtual golden fleece for the tribe since the BIA placed nearly all its federal programs on high-risk status last October.

At a June 9 tribal council meeting, two resolutions passed unanimously. The first accepted "the certification of the accounting system of the Oglala Sioux Tribe by Ketel Thorstenson, LLP ..." The second created a position of tribal comptroller and appointed Dean Patton - on a permanent basis. The comptroller position was a requirement of certification BIA officials made in a May meeting.

Certification is a primary step in normalizing the tribe's federal program status and identifies five areas of financial management with substantial progress at reform: personnel system, property management, record keeping, procurement system, and general financial management.

"The whole thing is that they have a certified system to handle federal dollars," said BIA Superintendent Bob Ecoffey. "If their system's not certified - what do we do with them? So, it's a major part."

Takeover of the tribe's Red Cloud tribal office building Jan. 16 has complicated efforts at reform. The computer-based financial system of the tribe's nine district offices is housed there.

The tribe has been unable to use the system, reputed to cost more than $5 million, for the past six months.

"It's one of the negative things that the occupation of the Red Cloud Building has created. The people on the street really don't realize the effect that has had in terms of the tribes financial system and their certification," Ecoffey said. "Just the damage to the infrastructure itself, the separation of certain components, the privacy issues of how individual tribal members' finances are handled. There's a lot that goes into a certified system."

Tribal Treasurer Chuck Jacobs said he thinks certification of the tribe's financial system, given the recent political turmoil, is an "amazing accomplishment." But he warns the tribe isn't out of the woods. "Right now, the tribal council is having to look at spending upwards of $150, 000 just to renovate a building so we can have a certified system. This is money we don't even have. Meanwhile, the BIA, the tribal courts, public safety, the Indian Health Service hospital in Pine Ridge, all these government entities have good buildings they can operate out of. But none of these organizations would even be here if it wasn't for the tribe."

Jacobs said the takeover was done with the willing assistance of the tribe's police department. "That takeover was little more than a paramilitary coup. Public Safety did its best to ensure that nobody interfered with the takeover."

The treasurer also took issue with what he saw as FBI cooperation with members of the Grassroots Oyate shortly after the group occupied the building. Jacobs said he believes the FBI gave the group assurances it would be allowed to remain in the building after agents removed financial documents.

"Here you have federal law enforcement assisting an unlawful group to further their unlawful acts. There's going to be a lot to answer for when this is over," Jacobs said.

Agent Mark Vuckelich of the FBI's Rapid City office disputes Jacobs' claim. "Absolutely not. There is no written document, there was no verbal agreement. They (Grassroots Oyate) had numerous demands. One of them was the financial records, we strictly facilitated. I didn't take possession of these records so much as I held them for the BIA."

Vuckelich said the FBI acted only after a meeting with Tribal Chairman Harold Salway, the tribe's executive committee and Ecoffey, when a decision was made to remove the records.

Ecoffey agreed with Jacobs that the tribe has many hurdles to cross. "The tribe has a six-week time frame to institute those recommendations that Donna Danker made. If they don't have them all in place by the end of those six weeks, she will jerk that certification. There's still a lot of work to do.

"I know one of the things the tribal council talked about was going up and trying to remodel the old bingo hall. You're probably looking at anywhere from fifty to a hundred thousand dollars to do that. That's a cost that this tribe simply doesn't have. I think it's important to say, at what point do the people here sit down and say enough is enough, and get back into (the Red Cloud Building)?"