FROM THE ARCHIVE

Probe raises more questions than answers

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WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 7, 2002

Senior Department of Interior officials and their attorneys are so divided by petty disputes and personal concerns that they "cannot see or think clearly" when they manage millions of dollars in Indian trust funds, an internal report released this week concluded.

But no one who oversees the assets of 500,000 American Indians intentionally misled or lied to a federal judge who has become so fed up with the game playing that he may soon hold Secretary of Interior Gale Norton in contempt for the debacle, Inspector General Earl E. Devaney said. A long-awaited investigation that attempts to capture more than two years of decision-making during the Clinton and Bush administrations contained the rather unsurprising finding.

"[W]e are convinced that in a department whose components are blinded by clouded judgment and crippled by distrust," the 89-page report stated, "a singular sinister or conspiratorial plan is impossible to construct."

"The historical management failures of this endeavor are profound," it continued.

Despite the dramatic remarks, Devaney was unable to provide a full and accurate portrait of the ineptitude. He spent nine months interviewing more than 40 government officials, employees and attorneys but was stymied in a number of respects.

Former Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his top aide, Anne Shields, were among those who refused to be interviewed, according to the report. Some Department of Justice attorneys who were "were in the middle of this this" also did not cooperate fully, Devaney said.

"So long as these persons remain silent, important questions concerning their actions and decisions remain unanswered," the report summarizes.

As a result, the probe into the handling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust is admittedly about as complete as the department's own reports that prompted contempt charges to be laid against Norton. Although the incidents described in the report mostly occurred prior to her joining the Interior, they confirm an atmosphere of infighting -- mostly involving Tom Slonaker, who was ousted from his top trust reform role last week -- that has continued to this day.

"The internal feuding is intensely problematic," said Kevin Gover, whose actions during the Bureau of Indian Affairs for three years at the end of the Clinton administration figure largely in the investigation.

"We didn't like each other enough to conspire," he added.

Devaney's report centers on three issues of misconduct that were first uncovered by court investigators. In that respect, the probe affirms numerous findings by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III and special master Alan Balaran, both of whom have been intensely fought by Clinton and Bush officials.

The first two issues stemmed from delays in complying with U.S. District Judge Lamberth's landmark December 1999 ruling. He ordered an historical accounting of funds owed to more than 500,000 American Indians and required the department to fix the broken system, which also affects hundreds of tribes.

For at least 18 months, however, there was no accounting, the court and Devaney found. While the government appealed Lamberth's ruling -- later affirmed unanimously -- dozens of "consultation" meetings with Indian Country were held, the result of which was to ignore what account holders wanted and unilaterally impose a statistical sampling of the IIM trust.

Even prior to the decision, senior officials and managers were aware that a key part of the fix was not living up to expectations but failed to inform the court, the probes concluded. The Interior ended up spending $40 million on the the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) before Norton halted development early this year.

With respect to the their issue, the wholesale destruction of e-mails against court orders, the findings of the court were also affirmed. It took three years for the department to admit it was required to preserve electronic messages, Devaney said.

By that time, numerous "backup" tapes were erased, overwritten or otherwise destroyed, the probes found. A key Interior employee, in fact, told Devaney he "had never heard of Cobell," the litigation filed on behalf of individual Indians, more than two years after the department was ordered to maintain all documents.

In addition to pulling the plug on TAAMS, Norton eventually dropped the sampling plan, which one of her aides, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, approved over the concerns of a government attorney who felt the decision was more "political" than anything else. In its place, the Interior last month announced a widely criticized plan to conduct an accounting over a 10-year period at the cost of an estimated $2.4 billion.

Relevant Documents:
Full Report: Allegations Concerning Conduct of Department of the Interior Employees Involved in Various Aspects of the Cobell Litigation (June 2002)

Relevant Documents:
Devaney to Myers: Status of Investigation (10/12) | Myers to Devaney: Request for Investigation (8/17)

Relevant Links:
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:
DOI investigation released (8/7)
No one to punish for destroyed e-mails (4/10)
Request for trust fund probe rejected (11/7)
Internal trust fund investigation sought (8/22)