Washington, DC — An Interior Department attorney who revealed his agency’s extensive ongoing mismanagement of Indian properties faces termination from his job for disclosing these problems to a newspaper reporter, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The government is invoking the Trade Secrets Act, an obscure criminal statute, as the main basis for proceeding against the Interior attorney.
Robert McCarthy, a Field Solicitor, is the chief legal officer in Southern California responsible for overseeing proper management of properties of individual members of Indian tribes held in trust by Interior. McCarthy has documented massive losses due to agency missteps but the problems persist, costing Native Americans millions of dollars a month in lost revenues. His concerns were validated by an Inspector General report that has yet to be finally released.
McCarthy provided a reporter for the Palm Springs Desert Sun newspaper a copy of his Inspector General disclosure with individual names blacked out. The reporter wrote a story on April 10, 2007, entitled “Probe: Local Indian Affairs Office Troubled.” Four months later, in a letter dated August 9, 2007, Regional Solicitor Daniel Shillito proposed that McCarthy be fired for violating the Trade Secrets Act, which prohibits the release of “confidential” financial or commercial information.
In McCarthy’s case, however, this arcane act does not apply because he revealed no names or any information that could be considered confidential. Moreover, the Trade Secrets Act only prohibits releases which damage the economic interests of the submitter but McCarthy’s disclosures was designed to benefit those property holders by identifying and ending unjustified losses.
“Interior invoking the Trade Secrets Act to cloak its own malfeasance is not only baseless but somewhat chilling,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is representing McCarthy. “The only official secret in this case is how corrupt and incompetent Interior has become.”
Significantly, Shillito, McCarthy’s predecessor and supervisor, was supposed to clean up the large-scale asset mismanagement and losses identified back in 1992 that McCarthy found had never been addressed. One major problem is Interior’s inability to even track revenues owed to Indian property-holders. This failure is at the heart of what is called the Cobell suit, a more than decade-long effort by tribal members to force an accounting for, and repayment of, what is owed.
By most estimates, the federal government’s liability to the Cobell plaintiffs and to tribes themselves runs into the tens of billions of dollars. McCarthy’s disclosures show that the accounting problems have yet to be fixed and that the future financial liability of the government grows substantially greater every day.
McCarthy’s fate is now in the hands of Deputy Solicitor Larry Jensen, who is in charge of the Cobell litigation for Interior. Ironically, Interior was sanctioned in the Cobell case for asserting the Trade Secrets Act as a basis for denying requested lease information to the plaintiffs and ordered to pay attorney fess and costs for making “groundless” legal motions.
“Congress needs to step in now to stop Interior from digging this gaping financial hole any deeper,” Ruch added. “The Interior officials who covered up these conditions are the ones who should be removed from government service so that conscientious public servants like Robert McCarthy can do their jobs.”