Sweeney Interior nomination in limbo

Tara Sweeney’s nomination to be assistant Interior secretary for Indian Affairs has been held up for months. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Alaskan Tara Sweeney is President Trump’s pick to be the next assistant Interior secretary for Indian Affairs. But her nomination has been held up for months at the Office of Government Ethics, an independent agency in the executive branch. Alaska’s U.S. senators say the problem holding up Sweeney’s case would be a barrier for many Alaska Natives who might be appointed to high office.

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Back in October, Sweeney’s nomination was widely applauded around Alaska and among Native American groups. She’s Inupiaq and an executive vice president of Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Sweeney is also one of the 13,000 shareholders in ASRC, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski says that stock seems to have stumped the government ethics office.

“I tell you, I am so just beside myself at what she has had to go through, for five months now,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski spoke with Sweeney in Alaska recently. She says Sweeney has had to put her life on hold while her case is “stuck in this dark hole of the Office of Government Ethics.”

OGE is charged with making sure administration appointees don’t have conflicts of interest. The office offered no comment for this story. Sweeney also declined to comment.

Normally, if nominees hold stock in an industry regulated by the agency where they’re hoping to serve, they can resolve that potential conflict by selling the stock. Murkowski says that’s not appropriate for shareholders of Alaska Native Corporations, whose stock is issued to eligible Native residents or inherited.

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

Another option is recusal, where Sweeney would agree to stay out of decisions that directly impact ASRC. Murkowski says the Ethics Office has been slow to come up with an agreement for Sweeney to sign. The senator says she’s heard an agreement is coming out shortly.

“But we’ve heard that before,” Murkowski said. “We heard that before Christmas. We heard that around Thanksgiving time.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan says Sweeney’s job – or the job she’s supposed to be in – is vitally important for Alaska. The assistant secretary for Indian Affairs maintains the government’s relationship with the tribes and oversees land held in trust. Sweeney would oversee, among other functions, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Office of Self-Governance and the Office of Indian Gaming.

Sullivan says he’s frustrated but has faith the ethics office will get things back on track with a recusal agreement.

“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,” Sullivan said. “That can’t be the answer here.”

Murkowski says as far as she knows, the only other Alaska Native person appointed to a position requiring Senate confirmation was Morris Thompson of Fairbanks, who became head of the BIA. He was confirmed in 1973, before the Office of Government Ethics was established.

If Sweeney’s nomination is sent to the Senate soon, she’ll be among more than 100 still waiting for confirmation.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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