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The Case of the Dying Department

Some of us can remember a time when Washington worried about the absence of
a civil service in Indian country. Before we took over management of our
own programs with federal money, so the thinking went, we would need time
to develop a civil service. Without the proper administrative practices
that go with a corps of civil service professionals, we were a good bet to
waste government funding.

In theory at least, there is some merit to such thinking. But in practice,
any increase in Indian administration of our own resources, however
amateurish in some respects, would have been less costly to taxpayers than
the ongoing federal raid on our resources. That's because we would have
managed them for our own benefit, whatever our mistakes, rather than for
the convenience of a civil service gone bad and the profitability of its
corporate allies.

For when large government institutions go bad, righting them is a regular
drain on the national treasury. They are strangers to market discipline -
clients won't readily flee their faltering services because they don't pay
for them. When no one in the private sector competes with the flawed
institution to provide better services, the clients are stuck with the
level of service the institution deigns to provide.

This is because the institution has a monopoly. The monopoly provides
handsome paychecks for those who run its processes or profit from them. And
simply because it is in place, those who receive its services, such as they
are, have an incentive not to move past the complaining stage. At the same
time, disincentives surround any consideration of a serious challenge. One
of the first of these is that the monopoly power controls resources;
another is that it may carry the fight for institutional preservation far
beyond reason. If its problems are so crippling as to destroy it if they
are exposed, institutional self-preservation becomes everything.

At a certain point, such institutions become incapable of reforming
themselves from within or of responding constructively to reformist
pressures from without. The Interior Department is well past that point, as
we are reminded by the resignation recently of Alan Balaran. Balaran served
Indian country and the court well as a special master in the class action
lawsuit over Interior's mismanagement of the Individual Indian Money trust.

So did Kevin Gambrell serve us well. His career at the Interior Department
ended last year because he stood up for Indian people.

Interior's Indian trust accounting operation is in desperate straits, a
department ready for court-ordered receivership. Gambrell's
whistle-blowing, Balaran's reports, and a series of decisions by Judge
Royce C. Lamberth in U.S. district court provide vast and penetrating
detail of Interior's misdeeds as it has sought to evade the reforms forced
upon it by Congress in 1994. In its turn, Congress acted on an abundance of
bad reports Interior and the BIA had earned for themselves over the
previous decade.

Lamberth accuses Interior of responding to every criticism in a set way.
First it seeks to serve its own institutional interests (which include
those of its subordinate division, the BIA), then to protect the larger
interests of the trustee federal government, and only then to consider the
needs of its clients - Indian people.

This is the very pattern we see in Gambrell's Interior career and
dismissal, and in Balaran's April 5 resignation.

Interior put Gambrell in charge of its Farmington, N.M., Indian Minerals
Office in 1996. There he learned that Indians generally have not been
receiving fair value for trust assets on Interior's watch. Gambrell
maintains that over the ensuing years, he regularly protested the
situation. Just as regularly, he says, Interior ignored his protests.

Early in 2003, Gambrell became a "whistle-blower," a reformer from within,
by contacting the court in the IIM litigation. Court-appointed investigator
Alan Balaran, following up on some of Gambrell's assertions, filed a report
in August stating that Interior's below-market leasing practices have
deprived Indian allottees on Navajo land of considerable sums. At a
minimum, the report concludes, Interior's failure to engage in proper
comparative valuations of lease assets means Indian people have no way to
compare the prices they have received historically with what others have
received.

Interior's response to all this has been just as Lamberth described. First
it moved to protect its own interests by placing Gambrell on paid leave,
then firing him in mid-September - no more information for the courts from
that whistle-blower, one can almost hear them saying. Then it moved to
protect the federal government from liability by attacking the report - one
of its played-out old-school lieutenants regaled Indian country with the
view that once all the services provided by Interior are accounted for, the
price of Indian leases is "the same" as others.

Balaran continued his court-ordered investigations, visiting "the
repository of Interior's oil and gas audit files" on Sept. 19, around the
time of Gambrell's dismissal.

Again, and within a week this time, Interior reacted just as Lamberth
described, protecting its own institutional interests by filing a series of
motions to disqualify Balaran from the case, then covering the government's
flank with its usual fusillade of tired lies about how relationships
everyone else in the world criticizes work out to be "the same" for Indians
- as long as Interior never has to account for its transactions in the name
of Indians.

Lamberth may prove wrong on one count - it's still not clear that Interior
has had thought one for Indian people in the Gambrell-Balaran matter. That
would require figuring out that the very problem lies with the attitude
that Indian people must accept Interior services as "the same" - without
any way to calculate for themselves, much less any chance to go elsewhere
and compare.

They simply get to accept Interior's word for it. But that is a devil's
bargain, driven by monopoly power gone bad.