The price of a round trip airline ticket from Minneapolis to Denver runs around $164, and in that piece of information lies a very serious problem for the Lac Court Oreilles Indians, a small band of Chippewas who live here in the remote northern Wisconsin woods.
When a team of auditors from the Bureau Of Indian Affairs showed up at Lac Court Oreilles headquarters there last fall, they found tribal officials filing expense accounts for up to $372 to make the Denver trip. In a memo to Washington, the BIA auditors also cited a long list of additional financial problems they encountered in the tribe's books, including one that reads, "total lack of accounting controls."
Expense account padding is nothing new, of course, in the annals of white collar crime. But federal officials are becoming increasingly concerned as evidence of corruption begins to turn up among some of the 262 Indian tribes in the United States. Last year the tribes received more than $1 billion annually from an umbrella of 130 federal programs.
Federal officials cannot say for certain how much more than $1 billion, because no across-the-board audit of Indian programs has ever been undertaken. The General Accounting Office is currently looking into Indian funding at the request of both the House and Senate Appropriations committees. 50 Audits in 12 MOnths
The BIA, which together with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare supplies the largest portion of the federal Indian funding, refuses to disclose how many tribes have turned up with problems. But the agency has been called on to conduct 50 audits of its programs in the last year, some of which have been requested by agency officials because of suspected fraud, according to a BIA spokesman.
Indian financial problems have also raised fears among some Indian leaders that they may be used by critics to undermine the increasing shift toward tribal sovereignty that has taken place in recent years.
Forest J. Gerard, who was installed last month as assistant Interior secretary for Indian affairs, has promised a broad investigation into the BIA's funding program. The BIA spokesman said the "sweeping adult" would include individual audits of programs on Indian reservations.
"It's obvious there is something wrong out there, but we don't know the extent of the problem yet," Gerrard said in an interview recently.
Federal investigations into the mishandling of money by Indian officials have already taken place recently or are under consideration in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Montana, Arizona, and North and South Dakota.
Tribal officials of the Navajo tribe in Arizona and ithe Kowa tribe in Oklahoma have been convicted in the last year of misusing funds. Justice Department officials shield away from pressing charges against Lac Court Oreilles officials only because they found tribal records so badly kept they feared they would lack of necessary documentary evidence for conviction in court, according to federal officials.
Last month, however, the BIA, acting at the prompting of Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis), cut off permission to the Lac Court Oreilles to initiate any new contracts while federal officials ponder what action to take regarding the tribe.
For their part the Indians, who in many cases, have little or no accounting expertise, point out they have received scant help from the government in managing the wave of funds that have been channeled onto reservations during the last half-dozen years.
Nelson, in a statement last month on the Lac Court Oreilles' and other tribes' financial problems, sharply criticized the BIA. The agency, said Nelson, had been "grossly derelict in its oversight of the expenditure of public monies" on Indians.
Some Indian leaders and congressional supporters have voiced even stronger criticism of the BIA's funding role. "We've testified that attempts would be made by the BIA to discourage tribes from self-determination," said Charles Trimble, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. When administration of programs move from BIA to tribal governments, Trimble said, the agency cut off its accounting services.
"Corruption among tribal governments is no worse than in similar sized municipal units," Trimble said. "But the best thing for the bureaucrats would be for a few isolated cases to be singled out to make tribes come crawling back hat in hand to the BIA for help." No Federal 'Simplification'
Moreover, both Indians and some federal officials complain that the U.S. Joint Funding Simplification Act, which was set up three years ago to enable federal agencies from the Justice Department to the National Endowment for the Arts to coordinate their dunding efforts, has proved ineffective.
"No agency is willing to give up any of its turf to another agency so the whole thing just runs helter-skelter," said a BIA official. The result has been a hodge-podge of federal programs, with money coming onto Indian reservations with little or no control and only a minimum of capability among most Indians to handle the bookkeeping.
Here on the Lac Court Oreilles reservation, a 70-000-acre vastness of small blue lakes and birch and pine forests, that problem has been particularly acute. Nearly all of the 1,300 Lac Court Oreilles who live here are totally dependent on federal funds.
When the current tribal administration took over in 1971, the Lac Court Oreilles were getting $1,500 in federal funds. This year the tribe received $1,500 in federal funds. This year the tribe received $1.7 million in operational funds for its Indian programs and another $3 million in federal construction program.
Until January, when the tribe moved its headquarters into a strikingly handsome new wood-and-glass building here, much of the tribal finances were handled from a small house trailer.
The Lac Court Oreilles now receive funds from 42 different federal agencies, said tribal chairman Odric Baker. "At the beginning we could handle the finances in our head, but this whole thing just completely outstripped our ability to manage it," he said.
Baker, 46, said the Lac Court Oreilles put in a request to the BIA for emergency help to manage their money as long ago as 1973. The request was never answered, he said.
BIA officials contend they didn't take any action on the request because at the time the FBI was considering investigating corruption charges against tribal officials. The U.S. attorney for western Wisconsin decided against criminal prosecution because of the chaotic state of the tribe's records, according to a 1976 letter from U.S. attorney David Meban to Sen. Nelson. Bicentennial Windfall
The funding sources became so varied for the Lac Court Oreilles that the tribe received $100,000 from the U.S. Bicentennial Commission and didn't know what to do with it.
Indians don't care much about the Bicentennial," said Baker, "but the COmmission had $100,000 to spend and we needed jobs, so we took it." The tribes used the money to put Indians to work planting rows of red pine around the reservation.
Baker claimed that none of the federal funds have been misspent or stolen by tribal officials. "We handled the paperwork all wrong because there was no one to help us," he said. "But we never cheated anybody."
No charges have been filed against any tribal official in the case. Federal officials said the Lac Court OReilles situation is probably more important in pointing out the general shortcomings of the federal funding program than in singling out one tribe's problem.
"What we have now," said a senior BIA official, "is a situation in which the government is handing over a Rolls Royce and then not providing anyone to take care of it. You're bound to end up with problems and eventually the whole thiing just breaks down."