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Alaskan’s BIA nomination held up in White House limbo over Native corporation share questions

WASHINGTON — Tara Sweeney, the first Alaska Native woman to be nominated to a federal position that requires Senate confirmation, is stuck in bureaucratic limbo because the Office of Government Ethics doesn't know what to do about her status as a Native corporation shareholder, according to Alaska's U.S. senators.

Tara Sweeney (Photo courtesy of Tara Sweeney)

Alaska U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, lamented this week that process of clearing Sweeney for confirmation hearings has already stretched on for five months.

In October, the White House announced its intent to nominate Sweeney to be assistant secretary of the Interior Department in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But no nomination ever came.

"It's stuck in this dark hole of the Office of Government Ethics," Murkowski said.

The Office of Government Ethics, which clears nominees for conflicts of interest — especially of a financial nature — doesn't know how to handle Sweeney's continued status as a shareholder of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the senators said.

The "precedent can't be that at the end of the day they're not going to allow an entire class of American citizens to serve in their government at high levels. That can't be the answer here," Sullivan said in exasperation.

Sweeney did not respond to a request for comment.

The OGE declined to comment on a nominee still in the review process. The OGE uses a collaborative process to identify potential conflicts of interest and then find a resolution: a nominee could recuse herself on some issues, resign, or divest herself of conflict-causing investments. Reviews vary in length of time, from days to weeks to months, according to OGE.

Often, nominees with financial holdings that involve their area of government control either divest those holdings or put them in a blind trust. Those are not options when it comes to Alaska Native corporations.

This situation is without precedent: Sweeney is the first Alaska Native corporation shareholder nominated to a Senate-confirmed position, as far as anyone knows.

The late Morris Thompson, an Athabascan, held an earlier version of the position for which Sweeney is nominated, beginning in 1973. But he likely had not yet been granted shares of Doyon Ltd., an organization he would later lead. And the OGE did not even exist until 1978.

The assistant secretary position for which Sweeney has been nominated oversees the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education. They provide services, grants and contracts to 2 million Native American people in 567 tribes, including 229 in Alaska. The bureaus handle tribal courts, Indian child welfare, schools, roads, lands and money held in trust by the federal government for tribes and Native people.

Sweeney is the executive vice president of external affairs at the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a position she still holds, according to spokesman Ty Hardt. She co-chaired the Alaska Federation of Natives, led the international Arctic Economic Council, was Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics, Miss Top of the World and Miss National Congress of American Indians.

The announcement of Sweeney's nomination — driven by Alaska's congressional delegation — was met with great excitement in Alaska on the eve of the Alaska Federation of Natives' annual convention in Anchorage in October.

Since the nomination, Sweeney's life has been on hold, Murkowski said. "It has been an extraordinarily frustrating process from where I'm sitting," Murkowski said Thursday. She said she was with Sweeney in Alaska last weekend, and the two commiserated on the irksome process.

While neither senator has been able to discuss the process with OGE, both have talked with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who they said wants to see Sweeney on the job. Murkowski said lawyers in her personal office and on the energy committee (which would vet Sweeney's nomination once filed) have been working with lawyers at the Interior Department and at the White House "to make sure that all the proper paperwork is there."

Much of that has involved an education process for administration officials on Alaska Native corporations, and how they differ from other types of stocks and investments.

The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) created Alaska's system of Native corporations, in contrast to the reservations created in the Lower 48. There are 12 regional Native corporations and more than 200 village corporations. Many manage government contracts and resource development on the Native peoples' lands.

There are 100,000 ANCSA Native shareholders, and those shareholders receive dividend payments each year. The amount is not publicly available. The shares cannot be sold or traded, but they can be passed to family members.

Sweeney's organization, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., paid out $915 million to shareholders between 1978 and 2016, according to ASRC.

Both senators were clear that the idea of Sweeney giving up her shareholder status is a nonstarter. They both suggested that the office should come up with a plan for her to instead recuse herself when necessary.

"No Native person should be asked to sell off or give up their birthright in order to serve in the administration," Murkowski said.

"The precedent can't be that you can't serve in a very senior presidential-appointed Senate-confirmed job because you are an Alaska Native ANCSA shareholder. That can't be the right result here. And I certainly hope that's not the way this is going," Sullivan said.

"She's immensely qualified — probably one of the most well-qualified individuals in the country for this job — and it's just been … frustrating," Sullivan said.

"There are clearly going to be lines that will be drawn and specified for when she when it would be not only appropriate but necessary to recuse herself. That's understood," Murkowski said. "But do that. Outline it. It can't take five months to figure out what those recusal lines should be," she said.

Alaska Rep. Don Young's spokeswoman, Murphy McCollough, said he is aware of the hold-up and offered a messaged of optimism from the congressman.

"I have worked with Tara for many years and I believe she is the most qualified candidate for the role based on her extensive background in both State and Federal policy. While her nomination hasn't been approved yet, I am confident that the Administration will be able to navigate any technical details regarding her shares," Young said.

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