March 12, 2019

Udall Convenes Oversight Hearing on GAO High-Risk Indian Programs, Presses IHS on Abuse Allegations

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined committee chairman John Hoven (R-N.D.) to convene an oversight hearing on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) continued “High Risk” designation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), and the Indian Health Service (IHS). This hearing followed up on the three hearings the committee held last Congress on agencies’ high risk designation in 2017. 

“The GAO reports that high-risk Indian programs have made some notable progress in addressing its open recommendations,” Udall said in his opening statement.  “However, members of this committee and Tribal leaders are still concerned that this progress isn’t translating into real change. Factors such as underfunding, management accountability, and agency transparency continue to pose barriers to efforts by the IHS, BIE, and BIA to address high risk areas.” 

During the hearing, Udall pressed IHS Principal Deputy Director, Admiral Michael Weahkee, on IHS’s failure to address the widespread reports of abuse of Native American children and misconduct by one of its former employees, Dr. Stanley Weber, who worked as an IHS pediatrician in four states over the course of a 21 year period. 

“I find the failure of IHS to address the multiple reports of Dr. Weber’s abhorrent conduct with young IHS patients appalling,” said Udall.  “IHS officials reportedly ignored reports, retaliated against employees who tried to raise the alarm, and left Native children in the hands of a predator. Has the Service determined why Dr. Weber wasn’t fired after the Billings Area leadership became aware of his misconduct? Why was he allowed to remain an IHS employee and transfer to the Great Plains Area?”

Weahkee could not provide answers to the senator’s questions, but testified that IHS has retained a third party contractor to conduct a complete review of the factors that allowed Weber to remain in the IHS system for so long. 

Udall continued, “As far as I am concerned, management at every level failed to do their jobs – and their duties – under federal law…This failure aligns with the concerns raised in this committee’s report of 2010, called the Dorgan report, that IHS management does not follow federal employee misconduct procedures and instead transfers problem employees in a system colloquially referred to as ‘pass the lemon . . .How is IHS working to make sure service units and area management do their job to document and address federal employee misconduct?” 

Weahkee responded, “I would first like to start by committing to you that it will not be tolerated to ‘pass bad lemons’ while I am in this seat, and we are going to put the infrastructure in place to ensure that that’s sustainable at the agency moving forward.”  He then outlined several new policies that will provide higher ethical standards for healthcare providers and make all IHS employees mandatory reporters.  

Udall then asked GAO Director Jessica Farb to review IHS’s history of misuse of employee transfers, administrative leave, and duty reassignments.

After this exchange, Udall drew attention to the Interior Department’s failure to ensure the safety of students at a BIE school, Pine Hill School, in New Mexico.

Udall noted, “Between 2012 and 2018, the Department of Interior spent $1.2 million to fix the fire alarm and lightening protection systems at the Pine Hill School in New Mexico. It is my understanding that the major contributing factor for these cost and timeline overages was inaccurate project scoping and contracting.  GAO documented similar issues with facilities contracting in a 2017 report. What is Interior doing to increase management oversight of procurement personnel and contracting officers?”

In response, both BIE Director Tony Dearman and BIA Acting Director Darryl LaCounte committed to improving inter-bureau communication as well as meeting with committee staff on contracting oversight for BIE facilities projects. 

The full text of Udall’s opening remarks, as prepared, at the oversight hearing are below.

Thank you, Chairman Hoeven, for scheduling today’s hearing to discuss the status of Indian Programs on the GAO High Risk List.  I appreciate your follow through on this important topic. 

Last Congress, our Committee held three hearings on the GAO High Risk Report for Indian Programs. 

Each hearing demonstrated that the federal government must do better to provide trust and treaty-based services to American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes.

The GAO reports that high risk Indian programs have made some notable progress in addressing its open recommendations. 

However, members of this Committee and Tribal leaders are still concerned that this progress isn’t translating into real change. Factors such as underfunding, management accountability, and agency transparency continue to pose barriers to efforts by the IHS, BIE, and BIA to address high risk areas. 

As a practical matter, it’s reasonable to ask – how effective are IHS, BIE, and BA reforms in response to GAO’s high risk designation? 

As the ranking member on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, I understand that underfunding has a direct impact on nearly every Indian program – but that impact is particularly acute for programs on the high risk list.   

In my home state of New Mexico, there are still serious facility and resource issues at a number of BIE schools, IHS clinics, and BIA programs.  

I’ve fought to increase funding at all three agencies but, without continued meaningful investments and adequate appropriations, BIE, IHS, and BIA reforms will be less effective.  

At the same time, recent high profile events at the BIE and IHS raise serious questions about management accountability and transparency.

At the BIE, the Bureau has a string of unanswered Congressional letters, school closures due to asbestos, and lack of compliance with federal education laws.  

It’s to the point where I have had to call in BIE and BIA leadership to submit weekly updates directly to my office. 

And at the IHS, the Weber incident has alarmed many and, to speak frankly, it has sickened me. 

For over 20 years, Mr. Weber used his position of trust and authority as an I-H-S doctor to prey on young, innocent victims. 

What he did is a travesty.  And what IHS didn’t do to intervene – to protect Native children who were patients – is unconscionable. 

Even though Mr. Weber has been convicted and sentenced for his crimes in Montana and awaits trial in another federal court for similar crimes, questions remain: who in IHS leadership failed to document and remove Weber from his position within the Service?  

To that end, Chairman Hoeven and I sent a letter to HHS Office of Inspector General asking it to investigate whether any current or former IHS staff were complicit in or had knowledge or involvement with Mr. Weber’s misconduct.  

While we wait for concrete answers, I expect IHS leadership – here, today – to commit to management reform that ensures –

• — All future allegations of abuse by medical professionals at I-S facilities are properly investigated;

• — Reports against I-H-S employees who are a danger to patients are not swept under the rug; and

• — Whistleblowers do not fear for their reputations or their livelihoods. 

Above all, today’s hearing must be more than just hearing about progress on GAO’s recommendations.  I need to see evidence of a cultural shift to improve accountability at the IHS, the BIE, and the BIA.  And I need to see a commitment to transparency and ensuring the federal government is upholding trust and treaty responsibilities.

Finally, I will close by noting the Committee’s newly adopted “Rule 4-b”.  This rule states that, if the Administration misses the Committee’s 48 hour deadline for submission of testimony, the Administration witness must state on the record why the testimony was late.  Thank you, Admiral Weahkee and Ms. Farb, for submitting your testimony on time. But, Mr. Dearman and Mr. LaCounte, please be prepared to start your testimony with an explanation why you did not comply with the Committee’s rule.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you to our panel for joining us.