Federal officials try to coach tribes to self-correct rather than punish them — both in deference to tribal "self-determination" and because there aren't enough staff to closely monitor the thousands of service contracts between tribes and the government.
"There were less people in that hallway than you would find working in a McDonald's," said Walter Lamar, a former deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' law enforcement program. His Washington, D.C., headquarters staff of six or seven oversaw 100 tribal police agencies that patrol an area one and a half times larger than New York state.
Even when auditors raise concerns, there is no guarantee that tribal leaders will be investigated or prosecuted. Several auditors said their contracts were not renewed after they uncovered self-enrichment by tribal leaders.
In Montana — the nation's fourth-largest state by size, with a history of corruption on its far-flung reservations — just two investigators track down tips of fraud for the Interior Department's inspector general. The FBI focuses on violent crime.
Sympathy for tribes among some government officials also is at play.
During her years as a lawyer at the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Allison Binney said she heard some agency officials say they weren't interested in recovering funds because of "how many times a particular tribe was taken advantage of by the federal government.'"
Another justification for inaction Binney heard: A tribe is too poor to pay back federal funds.
That was the conclusion in the case of the Lake Paiute tribe in Nevada, and the fish hatchery that never was.
Over 14 years, starting in 1992, the BIA sent the tribe $1.6 million to protect the threatened Lahontan trout. Central to the effort was a fish hatchery. But by 2003 the hatchery still hadn't hatched a single fish. And that year it was converted to an office.