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Kempthorne’s last days marked by criticism over lavish spending

WASHINGTON – Never extremely popular among American Indians, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne has found himself facing public scrutiny over reports that he spent lavishly on a remodel of his private office bathroom. Given what’s sometimes been viewed as the department’s lacking progress on American Indian issues, some Native observers said the situation is especially disturbing.

According to a report published Jan. 5 by The Washington Post, Kempthorne spent about $235,000 in taxpayer funds renovating a seldom used bathroom in his fifth-floor office. Interior officials told the paper that the renovations were made in 2008.

The expensive additions included the installation of a new shower, a refrigerator and a freezer. Wainscot wood panels, pricey tiles and monogrammed towels were also part of the package, according to the report.

The General Services Administration reportedly approved and partially funded the project, and an investigation by the department’s inspector general, Earl Devaney, found no wrongdoing on the secretary’s behalf because the GSA had approved the project.

Still, several news outlets and opinion leaders have derided what they’ve labeled lavish and unnecessary spending by Kempthorne, whose department encompasses the BIA.

Some American Indian leaders have found the bathroom imbroglio to be especially unsettling, since the interior, under Kempthorne, has argued that it should not have to pay financial settlements to American Indian plaintiffs of the ongoing Cobell v. Kempthorne trust fund lawsuit.

The case, which has gone through numerous appeals since it was first filed in 1996, involves approximately 500,000 American Indian plaintiffs who have made strong arguments that their trust assets have for decades been mismanaged by interior officials.

“I find it incredible that [Kempthorne] would spend so wastefully in this limited budget environment,” said W. Ron Allen, who serves on the executive board of the National Congress of American Indians and is chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

“Indian country has so many needs, and it seems he has little qualms about just flushing our financial concerns down the toilet. … It’s not just him, either – but a host of government officials who just don’t care how they spend in the remaining days of an administration.”

Some also noted that Kempthorne recently eliminated a regulation that could open up public lands in and around the Grand Canyon to uranium mining. The action could end up being costly for some Western tribes in terms of legal costs to fight the decision.

Despite the financially-focused criticisms, Kempthorne used his final days in office to highlight ethics reform he said he’s accomplished during his tenure, which began in May 2006.

In a talk Kempthorne labeled his “last formal speech,” given Jan. 5 in Boise, Idaho, he said his term should be measured by ethics reforms that he hopes will improve the agency’s image.

“Without question, there have been a variety of issues concerning the integrity and activities of certain aspects of the department,” Kempthorne, the former governor of Idaho, said in his farewell address.

“We have endeavored to create an atmosphere and culture of ethics in the department, which is critically important. I tell them, ‘My mantra is, if in doubt, don’t.’”

Kempthorne noted that he has put into place a new ethics officer, and has created new rules to enhance ethics, including the creation of an ethics DVD for new employees.

Allen, for one, was not all that swayed by the speech. He said it will be quite difficult for Kempthorne to be given credit for cleaning up the department’s image, especially considering his personal involvement in the pricey bathroom remodel.

Despite Kempthorne’s emphasis on strengthening ethics, he has not yet made a public statement about the cost and controversy surrounding his expensive new bathroom.

The bathroom incident, while shocking to some, may be the least of the interior’s ongoing image problems, Allen added.

Over the past two years alone, investigations have indicated wrongdoing among several interior staffers. Reports of improper interference with the Endangered Species Act decisions, convictions centered on lying to Congress, and sex and drug scandals have all made headlines.

Most of the egregious activities occurred while Gale Norton, Kempthorne’s predecessor, led the office, between 2001 and 2006.

Of special interest to Indian country, Steven Griles, a former Norton deputy, became the highest-ranking Bush administration official convicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Abramoff pled guilty in January 2006 to criminal felony counts partially related to the defrauding of four tribes.

In June, Griles was sentenced to 10 months in prison for lying to the U.S. Senate.

Kempthorne’s farewell speech also included a special section on American Indians, in which he focused on the need to reduce Mexican drug imports through reservations.

“Indian country is now experiencing unprecedented drug activity from Mexican drug cartels across the border,” Kempthorne said.

“Tribal leaders call it the ‘second smallpox epidemic’ to hit Indian country. In the president’s budget, we proposed an initiative to significantly ramp up our enforcement. We are taking the Mexican drug cartels head on, and it’s a battle we absolutely must win.”

While some Natives have been quite critical of Kempthorne, others, including Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the NCAI, said he will have a positive legacy on issues like public safety and methamphetamine drug prevention initiatives.

Johnson Pata noted that one of Kempthorne’s first public meetings was with NCAI when he took control in 2006.

“…Kempthorne didn’t shy away from the politics,” she said of his term. “He continued to meet with us whenever we had challenges.”

She said she hopes that Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., who was chosen by President-elect Barack Obama in December to lead the department after Kempthorne’s exit, will strengthen the department’s focus on Indian issues.