The incoming chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee issued a blistering indictment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently, calling it one of the worst agencies in government and promising top-to-bottom reforms.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told leaders of Arizona Indian tribes he would push for sweeping changes in the BIA, which he said has failed to perform even its most basic tasks."The Bureau of Indian Affairs now ranks as one of the worst federal agencies in government," McCain said. "Each day we see new reports of waste, fraud and gross mismanagement of federal Indian programs."

McCain said the BIA cannot account for more than $2.1 billion in revenues derived from tribal natural resources and placed in trust by the federal government over the past 50 years. He said government auditors have been unable to account for more than $3.2 billion in BIA assets.

In addition, he said BIA schools are poorly maintained, students are living in dormitories that are unfit for habitation and that the agency has failed to implement either the American Indian self-determination act passed by Congress in 1988 or the American Indian child protection and family violence prevention act passed four years ago.

Tribal leaders attending the meeting at Scottsdale Community College, on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, were less direct in their criticism of the BIA. But none disagreed with McCain's overall assessment of the agency.

"Reorganization is necessary," said Ronnie Lupe, chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. "BIA has not been meeting the needs of people for many years."

Eddie Brown, a former BIA director, said the process of reforming the agency has already begun and that tribes have played a significant role in efforts to streamline its operations and improve its budgeting process.

Brown told McCain any future efforts to change the agency must involve the tribes, who have strong opinions as to how the BIA should operate.

"The tribes are ready, they're willing, they're innovative," Brown said. "There's lots of excitement and energy down at the local level."

Several leaders complained that BIA regulations are too restrictive and have thwarted efforts to develop reservation economies and infringed on tribal sovereignty. They elicited a pledge from McCain to expand federal block grant programs to "allow the tribes to spend the money as they see fit."

McCain said he also would strongly resist any cuts in federal funding.

Several leaders said they were concerned by budget cuts affecting American Indian health programs and efforts to combat alcoholism, drug abuse and crime on the reservations.