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Lawmakers question Interior Dept.'s awarding of contract to review tribal jail deaths

Federal lawmakers are pushing for a "do-over" of a contract, awarded by the Interior Department, to a former administrator to review deaths at tribal jails. Nearly half of those deaths happened on his watch.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Federal lawmakers are pushing for a "do-over" of a contract, awarded by the Interior Department, to a former administrator to review deaths at tribal jails. Nearly half of those deaths happened on his watch.

Federal lawmakers are calling for an inquiry into the Interior Department's handling of a contract that was awarded to a former administrator to review deaths at tribal jails, nearly half of which happened on his watch.

It comes after NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau published a story earlier this week that found the department's former top cop, Darren Cruzan, and his company, landed an $83,000 contract to review 16 in-custody deaths at tribal detention centers overseen by the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The in-custody deaths review was sparked by an NPR and Mountain West News Bureau investigation published in June that found a pattern of neglect and misconduct that led to the inmate deaths.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee that oversees the Interior Department, said Thursday that he is requesting an inquiry into the decision to award the contract to Cruzan's consulting group and urging a "do-over" of the selection process.

"Regardless of the assurances of a clean selection process for Mr. Cruzan, the appearance of conflict and favoritism cannot be ignored," Grijalva said in a statement. "The investigation into deaths that occurred in BIA detention centers demands a fully independent investigation. Tribal citizens' lives must be protected and we need answers as to why they weren't in this case."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said giving a contract to someone who was in charge when many of the deaths occurred is baffling.

"Montanans were promised an independent, third-party investigation into the deeply disturbing reports of deaths at BIA facilities," Tester said in a statement. "But hiring a former official to look into conduct that occurred under his own watch doesn't meet any definition of 'independent' I'm familiar with."

Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, echoed Tester's sentiment, calling the decision to give the contract to a former agency administrator "cronyism."

"The Senator is looking into what could possibly be done to reverse what appears to be an entirely inappropriate hiring decision," said Katie Schoettler, Daines' spokesperson.

Cruzan served as the top law enforcement officer at the BIA and later, the Interior Department, from 2010 to 2019. He moved to the Department of Homeland Security and retired last May. His company, The Cruzan Group, got the contract over two other companies that had proven track records. One has completed $15 million in federal contracts since 2008; the other $2.5 million, federal records showed. It was the company's first federal contract.

Cruzan has repeatedly declined requests for comment, but one of his business partners defended the former administrator's involvement in the review.

"He understood Indian Country like no one else on the team," Robert Knox, a partner with The Cruzan Group, said in an interview recently with the Mountain West News Bureau. "He's always been a very effective leader who is deeply concerned that Indian Country, and all of the Native Americans associated with it, receive the best services possible."

NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau obtained a copy of The Cruzan Group's report on Thursday, after the Interior Department declined to release it. According to the report, four of the deaths happened while Cruzan was director of the BIA's Office of Justice Services, where he approved policy, managed internal affairs and oversaw more than 70 detention centers. According to a timeline of the deaths, three occurred when he headed the Interior Department's Office of Law Enforcement and Security, which oversees policing and corrections across five agencies, including the BIA. All seven deaths happened between 2016 and 2019 on reservations in Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, and Wyoming, the report found.

"The BIA needs to provide information to Congress demonstrating there wasn't even a whiff of impropriety here, and they also need to present the findings of their investigation to us immediately so we can hold folks accountable for any wrongdoing," Tester said in a statement.

The Interior Department continued to defend awarding the contract to Cruzan's company, which also includes two former administrators from the agency's inspector general's office. Cruzan started the company in December 2020.

"The [Interior Department] Secretary has not called for any audit of the third-party review that was commissioned to help the Bureau of Indian Affairs understand how to best reform and update policies, training, procedures and resources for the Office of Justice Services Corrections Program," Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said.

Schwartz said the department is expected to announce reforms next week.

The report, a 127-page "Study of In-Custody Death Investigations," found myriad problems, including falsifying cell check reports, policy violations, shoddy investigations by both the BIA and FBI, missing investigative and other reports, no supervision and a lack of training. In one case, officials took nearly two-and-a-half years to complete an investigation, with no explanation for the delay, the report found. In another instance, there was no record that the FBI, which is responsible for investigating tribal jail deaths, actually did. In other cases, the report found, officials failed to interview key witnesses. Despite several serious acts of employee misconduct, authorities have never charged anyone with criminal wrongdoing in connection with any of the deaths, according to the report.

"Based upon our in-depth analysis ... we found areas for improvement in policy, training, investigative timeliness, thoroughness and supervision, external coordination, and report standardization," the report found.

One death cited was that of Aaron Perry. He was arrested on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming for public intoxication on July 3, 2018, according to the report. His blood alcohol content was nearly five times the legal limit and he also had several medical conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes, the report found. But he never received a medical clearance for incarceration, which is a violation of federal policy, the report found. Instead he was placed in a drunk tank.

It shows that the next morning after sobering up, he was placed in the jail's main holding block with eight other inmates. Correctional officers noted that Perry was going through alcohol withdrawal and he asked for both medical attention and medication, the report showed. But guards never took him to a hospital or health facility. Instead, at around 9:00 pm, they checked his blood sugar level and gave him a sandwich to help raise it, according to the report.

The following morning, at 5:05 a.m., surveillance video showed that Perry stopped moving in his cell, according to the report. His body was discovered by a guard nearly three hours later.

"[She] checked on Perry who she described as being cold to the touch and blue in color," the report said.

No lifesaving attempts were made after he was found unresponsive, they said in the report. The Cruzan Group found numerous policy violations that led to Perry's death. There were no supervisors on staff when he died, he never received a medical clearance to stay at the jail, and guards ignored or downplayed his repeated pleas for help, the report found. In it, the group also criticized the internal affairs investigator for not looking into why Perry remained in custody after he was determined to be sober.

"In most parts of the United States, public intoxication results in a fine," the authors said in the report. "If this is the case, then when Perry was no longer intoxicated and was not a threat to himself or others, he could have been released on a personal recognizance order that states he either appear in court or pays his fine."

Perry died during Cruzan's tenure as head of the Interior Department's Office of Law Enforcement And Security, records show, where his office was responsible for deciding whether any in-custody deaths warranted further scrutiny.

Another death that happened on Cruzan's watch was Brandy Skunkcap, 32. She was a mother of four and a member of the Blackfeet Nation. Skunkcap was arrested after allegedly stealing two beers from a gas station in Browning, Montana, in March 2016, law enforcement records show.

Skunkcap had struggled with an addiction to alcohol and painkillers for years, according to her family. She was jaundiced and complained of not feeling well when she arrived at the Blackfeet Adult Detention Center, but the correctional officer didn't get her medical help and placed her in a cell instead, law enforcement records showed. She suffered what appeared to be an alcohol withdrawal seizure in her cell as her cellmate, Danielle LaPlant, watched.

"LaPlant was observed making multiple trips to the cell door and banging on it in an attempt to get someone's attention," the report said. "At one point, LaPlant was observed looking into the camera and pleading for help."

LaPlant spent 11 minutes calling for help before correctional officers arrived, the report showed. But it said they never initiated life-saving measures for Skunkcap. Instead, the report found it took six minutes before a tribal police officer arrived and began administering CPR. It was too late. Skunkcap was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.

Overall, The Cruzan Group's review found that Skunkcap and 15 others died, in part, because correctional officers routinely violated policy.

"The most egregious examples of misconduct we observed was [sic] the failure of corrections officers to perform required cell checks and to respond to requests by inmates for medical services," the report said.

The report recommended improvements to both the BIA's detention center program and its training of internal affairs investigators. It also called for policy revisions and found faults in the current law enforcement handbook, which Cruzan established and approved during his tenure at the BIA.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
Cheryl W. Thompson is an investigative correspondent for NPR.