BIE director demoted amid hiring allegations

Felicia Fonseca
The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.  — The director of the federal agency that oversees education for American Indian children was demoted Wednesday after a federal watchdog found he used his influence to get jobs for a close relative and a woman with whom he had a romantic relationship.

Charles "Monty" Roessel, director of the Bureau of Indian Education, speaks on Jan. 14 during an interview at Cove Day School in Cove, Ariz. Roessel has been demoted after a report by a federal watchdog found he violated hiring practices. The report says Roessel inappropriately intervened in the hiring of a romantic interest and a close relative.

Charles "Monty" Roessel abused his position as director of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education to help the woman secure multiple positions and to get the relative a job on the Navajo Nation, the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General said in a report.

Roessel has led the bureau since late 2013. He didn't immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

In removing Roessel as director, the Interior Department said it wanted to take immediate action given the gravity of the report.

Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, a deputy assistant secretary under the Interior Department, will take over as the bureau's acting director.

The Bureau of Indian Education oversees nearly 200 schools serving American Indian children in some 20 states, mostly on rural reservations. It has faced scrutiny recently for rundown classrooms and for failing to conduct regular inspections at dozens of schools, putting children at risk.

The inspector general's investigation was prompted by complaints from an unidentified bureau official.

Roessel is a longtime educator whose family helped found the country's first tribal college on the Navajo reservation.

According to the report, he first helped get a job for the woman with whom he was romantically linked in 2013.

She was hired as an emergency employee after Roessel asked a human resources official how he could bring her on board and had the job description changed, the report found.

Roessel asked an education specialist to find another job for the woman at a Bureau of Indian Education community school despite the principal saying he had no need for her.

Roessel later personally selected the woman as a program analyst in Washington, D.C. He said he didn't feel it was inappropriate because she was the most qualified and because he wasn't her immediate supervisor.

A human resources official said the woman met the job qualifications and he didn't feel pressured to hire her. In hindsight, the official told investigators he would have warned Roessel against hiring the woman for appearances' sake.

Roessel and the woman met while she was working for the Navajo Department of Dine Education, the report said. They initially told investigators they were not involved romantically, but eventually admitted to kissing, hugging and spending time together outside the workplace.

The report also noted other inconsistencies in their statements regarding how the woman became aware of the jobs.

Roessel expressed fear in the report over losing his job once the hiring violations became public. He said he had planned an exit strategy because the Interior Department and President Barack Obama wouldn't want someone with "this type of baggage."

The hiring of Roessel's relative came after he proposed a position for an educational employee who could rotate among three schools in the Navajo region.

The relative was selected as the top candidate, but the position was canceled after two of the schools said they couldn't afford to chip in for the salary. It was re-advertised after Roessel and his staff decided to use grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education for the pay, according to the report.

An education specialist chose another person for the job. But when she told Roessel, he said that person was too difficult to work with, investigators wrote.

Roessel initially denied any involvement. He later acknowledged knowing his relative was the only person left on the certification list and would get the job if he disapproved of the other candidate.