A "sweeping fiscal audit" of the Bureau of Indian Affairs by non-government accountants was announced yesterday by Forrest J. Gerard, nominated by President Carter to the new position of assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs.
Gerard, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, said yesterday after a Senate hearing on his nomination that he and his top assistant "both felt that here was a good opportunity to try and address some of the allegations thrown at the bureau over the years and try something novel."
Critics, including Sen. James Abourezk (D-S-D.), chairman of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, which held yesterday's hearing on Gerard, have accused BIA and his 12 area directors of withholding federal funds from American Indians and engaging in a system of "rewards and punishments."
Abourezk and the American Indian Policy Review Commission, in a report earlier this year, called for abolition of the area offices and replacing BIA with a department of Indian affairs.
Gerard said he wants outside accountants to place emphasis on the area offices because of "continuing allegations money is being held back."
Outside auditors would be used because they have "no vested interest," he said and would let "the chips fall where they may."
Asked by Abourezk if he would sign an "immediate order" abolishing the area offices, Gerard said he had no plans to. Nor, Gerard said, would he withdraw the "line authority" given the area directors by BIA to conduct their business.
However, he said he is committed to reshaping BIA and serving as a "strong advocate for the Indian people."
Abourezk told Gerard that "intentions are all important" and called on him to "try to put an end to the divisiveness . . . sponsored by the bureau."
The bureaucrats see any increase in the power of the Indian people as a decline in their own power," Abourezk said.
Asked if he agreed, Gerald replied that "for too long, tribes and their respective members have been at the lower end of the totem pole."
In seeking candidate for the upgraded Indian affairs policy position, the Carter administration wrote more than 200 tribes for names. After they were culled, the names of Gerard and Mel Tonasket, a member of the Colville Tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians, were sent to the White House.
Gerard, 52, is a former staff member of the Senate Interior Committee, worked at BIA for three years, and was a consultant to several tribes before he was nominated.