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OST audits fare no better under Ross Swimmer
Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Months before former Interior Department official Tom Slonaker left his job as head of the Office of Special Trustee, his request to assume more authority over trust reform was rejected by Secretary Gale Norton.

In a strongly worded letter, Norton said Slonaker's handling of the trust fund didn't inspire confidence among Bush administration officials. "Frankly, your performance to date does not justify an expansion of your responsibilities," she wrote on April 17, 2002. "Instead you should be focusing your efforts on strengthening your execution of tasks already assigned to you."

The letter blamed Slonaker for a host of failures in efforts to fix the broken system. Among other problems, Norton said an independent review of OST's handling of the trust fund found discrepancies in tribal and individual Indian trust accounts.

"I expect you to improve your performance in working with the rest of our departmental team to serve trust beneficiaries," she concluded.

On the other hand, Norton expressed a lot of hope in Ross Swimmer, who at the time was running an amorphous entity called the Office of Indian Trust Transition that had been given greater authority over key trust reform projects. "I am confident that Mr. Swimmer is very qualified to undertake these duties, and I don't want to interrupt the progress that is being made," she wrote.

Just a few months later in August, Slonaker was ousted after he told a Congressional committee that an historical accounting of billions of Indian trust fund would be impossible. "I was asked to leave," the former official said in an interview with Indianz.Com at the time.

The White House ended up turning to its confidence man and nominated Swimmer to head the OST over the objections of many tribal leaders who recalled his tenure as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Reagan administration as a particularly divisive one. After a delayed confirmation, Swimmer was sworn into office on April 17, 2003, a year after the Slonaker letter.

Yet in spite of Norton's glowing words, Swimmer hasn't addressed some of the key concerns raised in the letter. For the past two years under Swimmer's direction, a top accounting firm has found that OST continues to suffer from the same problems for which Slonaker was chastised.

The lack of progress might have gone unnoticed except for the Interior Department's own Inspector General. In his latest semi-annual report to Congress, Earl E. Devaney said KPMG, one of the Big Four accounting firms, issued a "qualified opinion" on OST's handling of the trust fund for 2003 and 2004 -- the years Swimmer has been in control. A qualified opinion means KPMG can't vouch for the accuracy of the financial data or that OST's management doesn't conform with accounting standards.

"According to KPMG's report, inadequacies in certain DOI trust-related systems and processes, disagreements with trustees on account balances, and legal claims against the U.S. government made it impracticable for the auditors to extend auditing procedures to determine the fairness of trust fund balances," Devaney noted. "The report also identified material weaknesses related to OST's reliance on processing trust transactions at BIA and unresolved financial reporting issues from current and prior periods. KPMG also identified a reportable condition pertaining to internal controls over information technology systems."

Devaney notes that problems didn't originate with Swimmer. "This is the ninth consecutive time that the statements have been audited under OIG oversight and have received a qualified opinion," the semi-annual report states.

Then again, they didn't start with Slonaker either. As far back as 1996, when the OST started to operate, accounting firms have found that the trust fund is plagued with inaccuracies.

Among the long-standing issues:
• OST's reported balances of tribal and individual accounts differs from those reported by the Department of Treasury.
• OST has reported negative balances in individual trust accounts.
• OST has failed to distribute millions -- the total was $5.7 million in 2004 -- to individual account holders. Some tribal leaders say the amount contained in these "special deposit accounts" is actually more than what OST has disclosed.
• OST still can't find nearly 49,000 individual Indians who are owed a total of $73.9 million, up from $67 million during Slonaker's tenure.

Despite the repeated problems, Swimmer has not been criticized, at least publicly, by his boss. Instead, Norton has suggested more than once that the trust fund wouldn't be such a problem today had Indian Country gone along with suggestions he made during the Reagan administration.

"Ross Swimmer proposed some changes when he was assistant secretary that, had they been adopted, we would not be in the mess we are in today," Norton told a packed House hearing in February 2002.

Tribal leaders in the audience responded with loud boos and groans and today, many continue to question Swimmer's leadership. Trust reform, according to Charles Colombe, the president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, "is not happening." "It's like 'Indian money,'" he said at a conference last October. "Or 'Russian intelligence.'"

Since the start of the Bush administration, OST's budget has grown by more than 50 percent and it has taken over many trust programs previously managed by the BIA, whose budget keeps getting cut by the White House. That has tribal leaders worried not only about the fate of the agency but on the future of trust reform.

"We don't know who the boss is," said Colombe, who has spent decades dealing with trust issues in his state and the Great Plains, where a large number of Indian trust accounts originate. "Is it BIA or is it OST?"

Inspector General Report:
Semiannual Report to Congress (April 2005)

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
Top trust reform official comes under fire (May 21, 2002) | Indian Trust: Conflicts of interest (May 20, 2002) | A super assistant secretary, in all but name (May 3, 2002) | Reagan's Indian chief is back (November 20, 2001)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Office of Special Trustee -

Related Stories:
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Editorial: Reform DOI, not the trust responsibility (11/26)
Tribes and Bush administration still apart on trust (11/20)
Editorial: Indian Country's Ugly Baby (11/05)
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Self-governance tribes fear impact of reorganization (10/09)
Consolidation plan advances at Interior (9/16)
Ross Swimmer confirmed as special trustee (4/11)
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Senate panel approves Ross Swimmer nomination (03/06)
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