Agencies often cannot legally cut funding because of treaties, Supreme Court decisions and acts of Congress, and they frequently refuse to take control of failing programs.
"It's basically a reluctance to take on tribes. The Department of the Interior bends over backwards to be their friends," said Earl Devaney, the former inspector general at the department that houses the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education. "It's 'make nice,' and what you don't know, you don't know."
Many amounts were relatively small. But there are so many instances of abuses that the total was substantial.
Tribal council members in Northern California used federal grants to pay their utility bills and mortgages. A Nebraska tribe spent health clinic money on horses and ATVs. An environmental supervisor with a Washington tribe received $16,000 for mileage and other charges he either exaggerated or never incurred. A tribal housing authority in Nevada sprang for a 25-night, $6,500 retreat at a resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Among grant programs with a significant track record in a government database of audits, tribes ran 16 of the 20 with the highest rates of rule-breaking. Auditors flagged welfare grants to tribes, for example, 39 percent of the time. Most prominent were programs funded by Interior's bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education and the Indian Health Service, under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Many findings by auditors suggest mismanagement, not theft or fraud.
One barrier to proper administration of tribal programs is turnover among staff and leaders — entire governments can be voted out of office every two years. Attracting qualified administrators to often-remote reservations in the first place is another challenge. "So they hire maybe the chairman's nephew who had some accounting classes," said Pete Magee, a longtime auditor of tribal books.