In every press release and every listed biography, Gavin Clarkson cites a quote from the Financial Times, which had described him at one point as the “leading scholar in tribal finance.”
That, however, was before Clarkson was forced to resign from the Department of the Interior in 2017, following a series of reports that placed him squarely in one of the most substantial Native American financial scandals of the past decade.
Clarkson, who is now running in the Republican primary for one of New Mexico’s congressional seats, presents one of the most remarkable attempts at a redemption story this primary season offers. Or he would, at least, if he showed any remorse for the role he played in arranging a $20 million loan guarantee from the Interior Department — money that never met department regulations — or if he didn’t refer to a report from the inspector general’s office criticizing his role as “demonstratively false news.”
The tale of Clarkson’s role in the financial malfeasance predates his 2017 appointment as deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an appointment that didn’t require Senate approval. As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said at the time of the appointment, Clarkson brought an “expertise in the areas of law, finance and economic development.” Indeed, with degrees from Rice and Harvard, as well as membership in the Choctaw Nation, Clarkson seemed well-qualified for the position.
Unfortunately for Zinke and Clarkson alike, the Interior Department apparently ignored Clarkson’s role a few years prior as a consultant for Native American tribes receiving loans from the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ capital investment arm. While working as a consultant, Clarkson helped arrange a substantial loan for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the Washington Post reported. The loan Clarkson arranged allowed the tribe to purchase Westrock, a struggling Wall Street investment firm.
Despite any number of indicators, the deal somehow failed to raise the numerous red flags the inspector general later said it should have. According to ProPublica, which noted that Clarkson “played a key role” in the transaction between the Interior Department and Lower Brule Sioux:
The tribe was hoping to raise $22.5 million with $20 million of it guaranteed, but Clarkson wasn’t able to gather anything close to that amount. Instead, using a company he helped create for the occasion, he borrowed $3.5 million from private investors and then loaned it to the tribe. But Clarkson still managed to obtain a guarantee for $20 million. (He accomplished this by moving $19 million in debt from the brokerage to his company, according to a report about the episode, and convincing the Interior Department to treat it like a loan.)
Clarkson’s company, however, was not one that had previously been involved in loan programs like this — let alone a loan that was “for a much larger sum than is typical” for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, ProPublica added. (The loan was approximately 25 percent of the bureau’s total annual allocation.) As the inspector general’s report read, the loan Clarkson brought together “created unnecessary risk for loans already considered risky.”
A few years later, Westrock, the firm in which the Lower Brule Sioux had invested, went belly-up, leaving the tribe in a lurch. However, the Interior Department refused to honor the $20 million guarantee, rejecting the claim and saying the loan hadn’t met the guarantee’s conditions. The claims are still in litigation.
While no criminal indictments were ever filed, the transaction and financial flop — as well as Clarkson’s role in the entire affair — were egregious enough to convince Human Rights Watch (HRW) to devote an entire report to the fiasco.
“There is evidence that suggests Tribal Council members may have personally profited, along with Clarkson and others involved in the deal, despite claims to the contrary,” the group found. “Clarkson’s compensation was more than 300 percent higher than the salaries of the heads of larger, more established” institutions.
Clarkson denied that he profited off the deal, but a later filing showed that it netted Clarkson and his company nearly $330,000.
New man in New Mexico
Despite Clarkson’s role in the entire affair, the Interior Department still saw fit to bring him aboard last summer — and into a role that would have him involved in similar loan schemes. As Human Rights Watch’s Arvind Ganesan said last year, “It’s pretty disturbing that [Clarkson] is now in charge of a department that’s being sued over a deal that he arranged and that went so badly.”
His tenure didn’t last long, however. On the heels of the inspector general’s report last November, Clarkson resigned. However, Clarkson didn’t point to the rolling criticism as his reason for leaving. Rather, he cited his “need… to stop the swamp and protect New Mexico” — and promptly announced his candidacy for New Mexico’s open congressional seat, vacated by outgoing Rep. Steve Pearce (R).
Clarkson is facing a handful of more qualified candidates, including the chair of the state’s Republican Party and a member of the state house of representatives. He has positioned himself as a pro-Trump Republican, aping much of the president’s language about the “swamp.” Likewise, he’s also faced his own history of bankruptcy — a history he recently brushed off by pointing to the president’s bankruptcies.
It’s unclear where Clarkson stands on a number of positions, although in the past he has, according to the Rice Thresher, both compared Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision and described abortion in America as “the American holocaust.”
If Clarkson fails to win the Republican nomination next Tuesday, there’s no indication what he’ll do next. Following his resignation and announcement that he would run for Congress, New Mexico State University fired him from his position as business professor. Clarkson has challenged the termination, but recently lost his latest appeal attempt — all of which left the one-time “leading scholar in tribal finance” without a job to fall back on, let alone with the reputation he once knew.