- Associated Press - Thursday, May 11, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A new audit by the U.S. Department of Justice uncovered problems with how the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation managed $2.3 million in federal grants intended to address tribal justice, substance abuse and violence against women.

The 65-page document, made public on Thursday, describes a litany of problems in how tribal officials handled the federal funding, including questions about how $386,000 was spent.

The audit suggests that some of that money was inappropriately used for travel and other unjustified expenses. It also raised concerns that the reservation, home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, was not implementing programs in a timely manner.

The audit alleges inaccurate financial reports and inadequate payroll systems, as well as the need to strengthen policies to reduce the risk of fraud, waste and abuse. It also raised concern over the lack of competitive bidding on big-ticket expenditures.

The audit issued 15 recommendations, many focused on improving record keeping and accuracy in reports about the progress of programs. The report noted that Fort Belknap officials resolved many of the issues revealed in the audit, although leaders of the reservation disputed many of the findings.

The president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, Mark Azure, could not be immediately reached for comment on the report. A representative of the reservation’s Office on Violence Against Women, which was a key beneficiary of the federal grants, said she was not authorized to speak on the matter.

In their response to the audit’s findings, which were included in the report, the reservations leaders said they would look into strengthening financial protocols. But they disputed findings that the reservation did not follow rules, particularly in awarding a $215,000 employment contract for a prosecutor without competitive bidding.

According to the audit, Fort Belknap officials “did not adequately manage” four grants that were awarded to the community between 2012 and 2015.

“Overall, we identified $325,809 in questioned costs and $60,163 in funds that could be put to better use,” according to a statement sent out by Yvonne Garcia, the counsel to the Justice Department’s inspector general.

Those amounts comprise about two-fifths of the $900,000 in grants that had already been disbursed to the community as of last August, when the audit was undertaken.

In addition to concerns about finances, federal officials expressed alarm that conviction rates for domestic violence plummeted by more than half despite the additional funding - falling from a 38 percent conviction rate in 2012 to just 15 percent in the last six months of 2015.

The audit also faulted Fort Belknap officials for delays in a program meant to curb recidivism, partly because it had not hired a program manager.

Overall many of the programs funded by the grants were missing key milestones, the audit said.

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