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Anderson touts benefits of Cobell trust fund case
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Dave Anderson at NCAI. Bureau of Indian Affairs head Dave Anderson (r) leads National Congress of American Indians in cheer. NCAI vice president Joe Garcia and regional representative Leslie Lohse take part. February 24, 2004. Photo © NSM.
The new head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs praised the the long-running trust fund lawsuit on Tuesday for having positive effects on his agency.

In his first appearance before the National Congress of American Indians, assistant secretary Dave Anderson attributed improvements at the BIA to the seven-year-old case. "A lot has happened because of Cobell," Anderson said.

Anderson, who hosted dozens of tribal leaders at his public swearing-in ceremony on Monday, singled out changes in the BIA's information technology system. Without the lawsuit, he said the agency would still be a "musky relic" that continues to be left behind.

"I really believe that Cobell has been a good thing for the bureau," Anderson told attendees. "That's probably the first time you've heard somebody say this publicly."

To emphasize some of the improvements, Anderson is taking tribal leaders on tours of the BIA's new IT center tomorrow. Located in suburban Washington, D.C., he said the facility's computer network, which ties all regions and agencies together, was the "most sophisticated" within the Department of Interior.

"We have actually a computer command center that looks like NASA," he beamed. "When I saw it, I said Indian Country doesn't understand what we have here. We really need people to come see where we are today compared to where we were."

In the past two years, the BIA has allocated more than $50 million for a complete overhaul of its computer system and network. Brian Burns, the deputy assistant secretary for information technology, has overseen the installation of firewalls and other protections that are meant to safeguard billions of dollars in Indian trust data.

The changes were prompted by a court report that detailed how easy it was for anyone with an Internet connection to break into the BIA. In the summer of 2001, court-appointed hackers tapped into systems housing land title, ownership and royalty information without detection. They were able to create a fake Individual Indian Money (IIM) account.

Despite being warned about the problem by their own experts, private consultants and the court, higher-ups at Interior did little to change the situation. That prompted U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to order the department to ensure that Indian trust systems were not accessible from the Internet.

Officials responded by cutting off every system, a move that left account holders, many of whom are elderly and rely on their payments for their livelihood, to go without money in the winter of 2001. It took several months for checks to be written.

Anderson said the BIA is working to get approval from Lamberth to reconnect to the Internet. In the meantime, the systems have been running off-line.

Beyond computer systems, Anderson cited other reforms in trust management. He said the probate backlog would be reduced in four years. He also pointed to the national archive of electronic trust records that is being created in Kansas with the partnership of Haskell Indian Nations University.

But not everyone in Indian Country is satisfied with the latest initiatives. Most tribal leaders oppose the ongoing reorganization at the department because it is drawing resources from the BIA while expanding the Office of Special Trustee. BIA's budget has been static while OST's has mushroomed in the past couple of years, leaving critical Indian programs at flat or decreased funding levels.

When there have been boosts in the BIA budget, it has been in information technology. With his tours, Anderson hopes to show tribal leaders that they are benefiting from that investment.

At NCAI yesterday, Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, disputed the claims of progress that Bush administration officials attribute to the reshuffling. He said the reorganization will create, not reduce, backlogs in probate, appraisal and land title. The probate backlog has doubled in the past five years alone, according to BIA statistics.

"The current reorganization plan is a waste of money and resources," Frazier said. Tribes in his region, the Great Plains, have developed an alternative that would bring resources to the local level, he said.

"The solutions are not in Washington or Albuquerque, but at home," he said.

Frazier said the thinking behind the national records archive is misplaced. In the 1990s, most tribes gave up their documents to the BIA and have not seen them despite promises to the contrary. "We need to bring our IIM records back home," Frazier said.

Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney handling the Cobell suit, agreed with Frazier's views on the reorganization. He said bureaucrats in Washington will push the changes on Indian Country unless tribes develop their own plans.

Harper also said the plaintiffs have withdrawn a contempt motion relating to the computer systems. The two sides are currently discussing mediation of the suit. "This is a small step in the right direction," he told tribal leaders.

In an interview, Harper took heart with Anderson's comments about the lawsuit, which was filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell, a banker from the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. "We welcome his involvement," he said.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
Cobell continues fight for accounting of billions (12/19)
Lamberth orders DOI to turn over IT reports (12/12)
DOI fares poorly on computer security report card (12/11)
Trust fund rider faces test in courtroom (11/24)
Trust reform a big issue at NCAI conference (11/21)
Tribes still frustrated on trust reform (11/20)
Norton finally responds to trust settlement (11/20)
Bush officials blasted by tribal leaders (11/19)
Cobell plaintiffs disputing trust fund rider (11/17)
Appeals court puts trust fund ruling on hold (11/14)
Norton using rider to seek stay of Cobell case (11/12)
Editorial: White House actions on trust 'contemptible' (11/7)
Quick fixes won't solve trust fund problems (11/5)
President Bush 'on the hook' for trust fund delays (11/5)
Norton testimony sought by plaintiffs in trust case (11/5)
Tribal company's work on trust accounting on hold (11/5)
Daschle criticizes 'shameful' rider in DOI budget bill (11/04)
Norton welcomes time-out in Cobell trust fund case (11/4)
Norton appealing Indian trust fund ruling (11/3)
Norton says White House behind trust fund rider (11/3)
House approves trust fund rider in DOI bill (10/31)
Campbell pushes action on trust fund suit (10/30)
Battle brews in House over DOI budget bill (10/30)
Cobell rallies support for trust fund case (10/28)
DOI bill halts Indian trust fund case (10/24)
Bill targets Indian trust fund suit (10/22)
House chairman supports self-governance rider (10/14)
Self-governance tribes fear impact of reorganization (10/09)
Lamberth lays out future of Indian trust reform (09/26)
Court report finds undervaluation of Navajo lands (08/21)
Administration eyes consolidation of Indian appraisals (08/15)
Tally for private attorney fees in Cobell case rises (07/24)
Congress hacks Bush's accounting funds (7/16)
Swimmer partly right on trust fund rider (7/14)
Bush official balks at large settlement for Cobell (7/10)
On trust, lawmakers take Bush officials at face value (06/25)
Private attorneys reap benefits on Cobell case (06/24)
Norton offered settlement funds for IIM trust (6/20)
Lamberth criticizes interference with trust fund case (05/22)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)

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