Former Bureau of Indian Affairs director engaged in abusive behavior, no action taken

Bryan Rice’s behavior at the BIA highlights a culture of harassment and inaction.

 

Over the course of his career at the Department of the Interior, former Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Bryan Rice allegedly bullied, physically threatened and retaliated against employees before resigning from his post last April. But despite being aware of multiple complaints and allegations, BIA officials failed to address Rices behavior, according to documents obtained by High Country News through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General. 

Out of six official complaints, two were documented and closed without investigation. Four claims were investigated over a three-month period, highlighting a failure by officials to spur any action to curb Rice’s behavior. Rice could not be reached for comment and a Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

The incidents highlight the pervasiveness of harassment within the Interior Department, and specifically at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A 2017 survey found that 40 percent of BIA employees experienced some form of harassment in the span of 12 months — the highest percentage of all 15 Interior Department agencies.

Employees interviewed, including Interior Department staff members who worked with Rice before and during his role as BIA director, detailed incidents of intimidation, including a hostile encounter in an elevator that left an employee feeling threatened. Rice also reportedly yelled at an employee of Interior’s Office of Policy, Management and Budget, declaring that he wanted to “come up to the PMB hallway and rip the place apart.”

John Tahsuda III, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, left, sits with then-Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Bryan Rice, right.
Bureau of Indian Affairs

Indian Affairs FOIA officer Jessica Rogers, who filed a complaint and spoke with Inspector General investigators after a threatening encounter with Rice, said that his behavior and Indian Affairs’ unwillingness to take action distracts from the agency’s mission in Indian Country. “If the leaders at hand are behaving in this manner, then it’s cascading to the workers. How does this transfer into the services that we’re tasked to render?” said Rogers, a citizen of the Cayuga Nation. “When we are being crippled by bureaucracy and intimidated, it cascades down directly to the people we serve.”

Rogers’ encounter with Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, left her shaken, upset and confused. On the morning of Dec. 9, 2017, Rogers introduced herself to Rice in a hallway in the Main Interior Building in Washington, D.C.. She mentioned a Freedom of Information Act case where Rice had given conflicting advice, causing some confusion for employees. According to Rogers, Rice quickly grew angry, raising his voice and pointing his finger at her. Rogers felt intimidated; even though she wore heeled boots, Rice was much taller than her, and she was taken aback by his aggressive response to a straightforward, workplace conversation.

“For a Native man to speak to a Native woman in that manner was pretty shocking to my system,” Rogers said. “I was shocked that it happened in a federal building from a person who is supposed to be leading the ship.”

She reported the encounter the next day to Acting Chief of Staff Elizabeth Appel. When no action followed, Rogers contacted the Office of Inspector General’s office in January. Her complaint against Rice became one of the four incidents that the Inspector General began investigating in February, an inquiry that continued over the course of several months.

Rogers said she has seen no response from leadership other than acknowledgement of the incident and a vague promise that officials were “consulting with the appropriate offices.” To date, Rogers said Rice has not apologized, nor did he answer the Inspector General’s requests for a response to the allegations. According to internal documents, Rogers reported Rice to his superiors the day after the incident, but the investigation did not begin until two months later when she contacted the Inspector General. There were no attempts to separate Rice and Rogers or provide mediation, which Rogers said she would have welcomed. She eventually began working from home and taking sick leave to avoid what she describes as a hostile work environment.

Since the incident, Rogers said she has reached out to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney and former Acting Assistant Secretary John Tahsuda, with no actions taken. “I’m here to serve. I don’t have time to deal with other people’s inappropriate behavior,” said Rogers. “So I tell it to the supervisor so I can move on with my life. And in doing so, only made things worse.”

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Rogers is not alone. Of the few Interior Department employees who reported harassment, 40 percent said no action was ever taken, while 30 percent said their coworkers responded by treating them worse than before or blaming them for the problem. Rogers’ complaint is one of the few, just 5 percent, of complaints to receive an official investigation.

The department has taken some steps to address harassment. On April 23, a day before Rice resigned, an updated policy regarding the prevention and elimination of harassment went into effect. Reports of harassment within the BIA had prompted multiple requests by Democrats for oversight hearings within the House Committee on Natural Resources. Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, did not hold any. But now that Democrats have gained control of the House, incoming chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., plans to hold hearings on sexual harassment within the Interior Department, according to House Committee on Natural Resources Communications Director Adam Sarvana. “We want to know what steps have been taken to address it, above and beyond firing known offenders,” Sarvana said in an email.

In June, Tara Sweeney, a member of the Native Village of Barrow and the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, became assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, a position that had been temporarily filled by three different people in 2017. In her congressional hearing, the problem of harassment came up multiple times. “It is really disconcerting to see the news reports that you’ve just had this individual resign,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told Sweeney, referring to Rice. “But then further to learn that you’ve had investigations that are going on that speak to allegedly widespread harassment problems within the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

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Sweeney has promised zero tolerance of harassment, a frequent refrain from Secretary Ryan Zinke — who leaves office at the end of the year amidst ongoing ethics investigations — and others within Interior. In November, Sweeney sent an agency-wide email to Bureau of Indian Education and Indian Affairs employees, re-emphasizing the importance of “holding all supervisors and managers accountable for taking action” on harassment allegations and promising opportunities for future trainings. Those trainings are part of formal action plans that each Interior Department agency developed in response to the 2017 survey. Indian Affairs would not release the plans to High Country News, instead recommending HCN file a Freedom of Information Act request.

A year after her encounter with Rice, Rogers said the agency’s inaction shows how far someone must go to be acknowledged, and how many barriers stand in the way of resolution. The current processes in place to prevent and address harassment don’t work, she said. That has become evident to her — and so many others — from navigating an inadequate system.

“Just because people resigned doesn’t mean it goes away,” Rogers said. “Nobody should have to go through this.”

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Acting Chief of Staff Elizabeth Appel was not, in fact, Bryan Rice’s supervisor.

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News is conducting an ongoing investigation into instances of harassment, discrimination and sexual assault in Indian affairs agencies, and how agency officials handle these complaints. 


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