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Government watchdog seeks investigation into contract involving tribal jail deaths

At least 19 men and women have died since 2016 in tribal detention centers overseen by the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, including the Shiprock District Department of Corrections facility, according to an investigation by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau.
Sharon Chischilly for NPR
At least 19 men and women have died since 2016 in tribal detention centers overseen by the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, including the Shiprock District Department of Corrections facility, according to an investigation by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau.

A federal contract to review deaths at tribal jails went to a firm led by the person who oversaw those jails when some of the deaths occurred.

Now, nonprofit watchdog Project on Government Oversight (POGO) is calling on the Interior Department’s Inspector General to investigate that contract, awarded to a consulting firm led by Darren Cruzan.

A few months after retiring from Interior in May 2021, Cruzan’s private firm was hired to review 16 the deaths at jails overseen by the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs. Six of them happened while Cruzan had oversight of the facilities.

“It’s really hard to see how Mr. Cruzan can provide impartial assistance, and his company can, when he was at the Department of Interior, and involved with the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for POGO.

In a letter to Mark Greenblatt, Interior’s inspector general, the group argues that Cruzan’s work as a contractor could violate post-government employment laws.

“Federal contracting regulations clearly state that the general rule for government business ‘is to avoid strictly any conflict of interest or even the appearance of a conflict of interest in Government-contractor relationships,’” the letter says.

POGO also argues Cruzan may have violated a law regarding conflicts of interest after being a government employee.

Even if an investigation doesn’t find Cruzan violated specific rules, Amey said it should suggest systemic changes.

“I would hope that the IG would still come out with some kind of recommendation saying, ‘Well this certainly isn’t a best practice, this should be avoided, and here are the rules and regulations and things that should be implemented to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future,’” he said.

Cruzan’s firm did not respond for comment. In previous stories, the firm has said it won the $83,000 contract fairly.

Some Congressman have been critical of the contract with Cruzan, though concrete steps haven’t been announced to investigate it.

An NPR and Mountain West News Bureau investigation into death and neglect at tribal jails prompted federal calls to review those deaths. Later, after reviewing Cruzan’s report on some of the deaths, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced reforms to its tribal jails.

The reforms included more training surrounding in-custody death investigations. But they did not include harsher penalties for misconduct by jail employees or more medical personnel in tribal jails.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.