FROM THE ARCHIVE

White House embroiled in trust fund mess

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 31, 2002

The federal government's top Indian trust reform official quit the Bush administration on Tuesday, the culmination of a growing debacle that reaches all the way to the White House.

"I was asked to leave," Special Trustee Tom Slonaker said in an interview.

Slonaker met with Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and an aide yesterday afternoon following a Congressional hearing on trust reform. Norton then requested he resign or be fired, he said.

"I have to stand up and tell things as they are," said Slonaker, who assumed his position in June 2000 after being appointed by former President Bill Clinton.

The Department of Interior manages more than $3 billion in funds for tribes and tribal members yet cannot account for the money historically. Slonaker was brought in to oversee a fix -- which is currently stalled amid talks with a select group of tribal leaders -- and has frequently criticized efforts to correct more than a century of trust asset mismanagement.

But his latest break with the administration came after White House and Department of Justice attorneys tried to suppress his views on a $2.4 billion, 10-year proposal to account for funds owed to more than 500,000 American Indians, he said. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing last Thursday to discuss the costly plan.

"I was not told that I could not submit the testimony," Slonaker charged, describing an 11th-hour, unprecedented assault by the White House and DOJ.

Slonaker -- with the Interior's full support, he pointed out -- appeared before the panel anyway and offered a candid assessment of the effort. "Since it can't produce a full accounting, I don't believe it satisfies the trust responsibilities of the Secretary to effectively and efficiently provide that," he testified at the time.

Yesterday, Slonaker stood by his candor and said he was only fulfilling his Congressionally-mandated duties. "The law requires me to tell the truth about the condition of trust reform to both the Secretary as well as the Congress," he said.

Slonaker also acknowledged that growing tensions between his office and Norton and her political aides contributed to his firing. For nearly a year, relations have been strained as the courts, Indian Country and Congress have put the Bush administration on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars in mismanagement claims.

"There are some statements that I have made from time to time . . . that were difficult for them to live with from a litigation standpoint," he said.

Chief among his views were those made in the ongoing Cobell v. Norton litigation, a landmark class action representing individual Indian beneficiaries but which now affects tribes with similar breach of trust claims. He has cooperated with the plaintiffs in the case, a factor which led to his firing, charged an attorney for the case.

"If you speak out," said Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund. "You get fired. It's just the latest in a long line of retaliatory actions for telling the truth."

Norton issued a statement thanking Slonaker for his service. "Tom has had the extraordinary experience that few Americans have of serving two different administrations in senior position in government," she said.

Donna Erwin, a senior trust official who reported to Slonaker, will take over as Acting Special Trustee starting today. "She's quite capable," said Slonaker. "She will do a good job."

Erwin in recent months has worked closely with Ross Swimmer, a former Reagan administration official, on efforts to restructure the department's Indian trust duties.

Today on Indianz.Com:
'He did the best he could' (7/31)

Relevant Documents:
Tom Slonaker Statement (7/30) | Gale Norton Statement (7/30) | Neal McCaleb Statement (7/30) | McCain Statement (7/30) | Tom Slonaker Biography (OST)

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

Related Stories:
Slonaker leaves Bush administration (7/30)