Interior Dept. hires official to review jail deaths that happened on his watch The Interior Department ordered a review of tribal jail deaths, but the man who got the contract is a former agency official who oversaw the jails when some of the deaths occurred.

Interior Department hires former top cop to review jail deaths on his watch

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the last five years, 19 men and women have died in tribal detention centers. An investigation last year by NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau uncovered a pattern of neglect and misconduct at jails that are overseen by the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs. That prompted Interior Department officials to launch an independent, third-party review. But now there are concerns about the man they hired to do the job. The Mountain West News Bureau's Nate Hegyi explains.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Darren Cruzan was emotional when he delivered his retirement speech last May. He was ending a 26-year career in federal law enforcement, most of it at the Interior Department. He was proud of his tenure.

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DARREN CRUZAN: If I were to go back and rewrite my entire life and career from beginning to now, I might change a few punctuation marks. But the things that really mattered could have hardly worked out any better. And I really do believe greater things are still to come.

HEGYI: In fact, more was to come. Less than two months after retiring, Cruzan was back on the federal payroll, this time as a private contractor. He was hired by the very agency he used to work for to review in-custody deaths at tribal detention centers. At least two of those deaths happened on Cruzan's watch.

CHRIS YAZZIE: It just seems like a slap in the face.

HEGYI: That's Chris Yazzie. His brother, Carlos, died in 2017 at a tribal jail in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. Yazzie was looking forward to the study, hoping it would lead to reforms. But now he's dismayed because Cruzan oversaw the corrections program when some of these deaths occurred.

YAZZIE: It's really an insult to the people who die in these jails. This whole situation itself probably needs to be reviewed by Congress.

HEGYI: Cruzan declined three requests for an interview. He formed his consulting group in December 2020, when he was still a federal employee. His partners include two former Interior Department administrators. And despite having no track record, the Cruzan Group beat out two other firms with federal contracting experience to land the $83,000 bid with the BIA. It was their first one.

ROBERT KNOX: We have done nothing - absolutely nothing - improper.

HEGYI: That's Robert Knox. He's a partner with the Cruzan Group, which completed the study in December. He acknowledges that Cruzan played a prominent role in the company's review of the deaths.

KNOX: He had input. And he had perspective because he understood Indian Country like nobody else on the team.

HEGYI: Interior Department officials have declined repeated requests from NPR and the Mountain West News Bureau for a copy of the study. For nine years, Cruzan served as the top law enforcement officer at the BIA and interior. At the BIA, he approved detention center policies and oversaw the jails. At interior, his office was responsible for deciding whether any in-custody jail deaths warranted further scrutiny. Scott Amey is a contracting expert and general counsel with the Project on Government Oversight, a D.C.-based nonprofit. He says awarding this contract to someone who oversaw a troubled program but is now getting paid to point out those problems raises conflict of interest issues.

SCOTT AMEY: This is a perfect example of worst practice when it comes to government contracting.

HEGYI: Virginia Canter is a former associate counsel for ethics for Presidents Obama and Clinton. And she agrees. She says federal regulations call on agencies to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest when working with contractors.

VIRGINIA CANTER: There's a lot of red flags here that would suggest that it merits an inspector general investigation.

HEGYI: Interior Department officials stand behind their decision to give Cruzan's company the contract.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi.

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