Haskell says investigation has found nepotism complaint unsubstantiated; federal agency has not released formal findings

A sign at the entrance to Haskell Indian Nations University is shown Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.

A federal investigation into alleged nepotism at Haskell Indian Nations University found the complaint to be unsubstantiated, though some changes in supervisory duties have been made, Haskell administration announced Tuesday. However, a spokeswoman for the investigating federal agency cited by Haskell said the office has yet to issue formal findings.

The complaint accused Haskell President Venida Chenault of improperly engaging in nepotism by supervising her son, Joshua Arce, while he served as acting dean of students for a period of eight months earlier this year. Arce’s permanent position at Haskell is chief information officer.

“The Office of the Inspector General issued findings on an anonymous complaint which alleged nepotism by the President of Haskell Indian Nations University. The complaint was determined to be unsubstantiated and the findings of the investigation are considered resolved,” according to a statement issued Tuesday by the university. “No further action will be taken by the Office of the Inspector General.”

But Nancy DiPaolo, director of external affairs for the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General, said Tuesday afternoon that her office’s investigation into Haskell is not complete and that the office has not issued any findings.

Multiple federal offices are involved in overseeing Haskell, the only four-year university operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Education. The Bureau of Indian Education is within the U.S. Department of Interior.

The Bureau of Indian Education’s Employee and Labor Relations unit conducted an administrative investigation to examine allegations of misconduct by Chenault, DiPaolo said. She said those allegations generally revolve around Chenault’s treatment of and interactions with her subordinate staff, and that the Bureau of Indian Education’s report was shared with her office.

A Bureau of Indian Education spokeswoman said she was not able to confirm information about the investigation late Tuesday, and a call to the Haskell president’s office was not returned.

According to Haskell’s statement, the investigation found that when Chenault became Haskell president in January 2014, supervision of Arce was “properly transferred” to ensure compliance with policy related to supervision of a relative. The investigation found that the change of supervision was sufficient to comply with existing requirements at that time. The investigation found that Arce has been supervised by Haskell’s vice president of university services since 2014.

A newly published U.S. Bureau of Indian Education policy, which became effective in August, requires one additional layer of supervision between the vice president of university services and the president to ensure appropriate separation between Chenault and Arce, according to Haskell’s statement. As such, Haskell will move supervision of the vice president for university services under the vice president for academic services to rectify the issue.

A former Haskell instructor, Theresa Milk, told the Journal-World in September that she filed the nepotism complaint in the spring, alleging that Arce’s employment was improper and contributed to administrative problems at the school.

Arce was removed as acting dean of students as of Sept. 1, and Haskell later named a new acting dean of students, Haskell faculty member Melissa Holder.

Both Arce and now Holder held the position as a detail assignment, which according to Haskell “is a temporary assignment in which an employee is tasked with carrying out specific projects to advance the university when a position is vacant or had not been filled.”