Home > News > More Headlines > Bunker mentality evident in trust reform fight
Printer friendly version
Bunker mentality evident in trust reform fight

Does Donna have a problem with me -- notes from a conversation about Donna Erwin, top trust reform official, January 23, 2002.

Even after the two Department of Interior agencies most responsible for the administration of the Indian trust promised to work together, infighting among top officials and key players continued, new court documents show.

Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employees in charge of a $40 million computer system now deemed a failure continued to battle higher-ups in the Office of Special Trustee (OST) up until the very end, according to the documents. Along with a contractor, an Indian-owned company based in Maryland, the employees challenged OST's reliance on a consulting firm with little experience in Indian affairs but with a lot of fancy charts and tables.

"We take exception to several of these comments, but do not know if they are taken out of context or taken from a person who has the appropriate responsibility to make the judgment cited," the BIA opponents said in one response to criticism of their work, just months before the project was stripped from them and handed to Donna Erwin, a high-ranking OST official.

But it wasn't just OST that thought the world of Electronic Data Systems (EDS). Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, her deputy J. Steve Griles and even her former Indian affairs aide Neal McCaleb came to embrace many of EDS's controversial recommendations -- including one to split the BIA in two.

The adoption of BITAM as a solution to a century of trust fund mismanagement ultimately led to ten months of meetings whose ultimate success may be the frequent-flier miles attendees racked up, tribal leaders have half-jokingly said. The talks concluded with Neal McCaleb's resignation, and his swipe at the litigation that left him in near tears at several points in his short federal career.

Caught in the middle, according to a court investigator assigned to help sort out the mess, are the 300,000-plus Indian beneficiaries who don't seem to be represented by much at the Department of Interior these days.

"For EDS, the motive was to persuade Interior to buy more EDS," Alan Balaran wrote in a report released yesterday. "For Interior, it was to avoid liability at all costs. In the view of the Special Master, neither organization acted in the best interest of the public or the court.

"They certainly were not acting in the best interest of the beneficiaries."

Confronted with the failure of trust reform, many tribal leaders point fingers at OST. They accused the first special trustee, Paul Homan, of trying to make changes without their input and of pushing a "one-size-fits-all" approach on hundreds of individual tribes. Many didn't care for his replacement, Tom Slonaker, either.

BIA officials and DOI attorneys were also convinced OST was the problem. Former assistant secretary Kevin Gover, who was held in contempt for failing to produce trust fund records, said OST tried to have its cake and eat it too.

"The problem was that OST did have authority and they were operating programs. And then they claimed to be an independent observer," he said recently. "Needless to say, BIA did not find them to be an objective interpreter of events, or even an objective reporter of events."

At the height of the battle, OST's chief complaint was that BIA lacked project management skills. Little by little, OST increased oversight of projects like the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), sometimes at the prodding of DOI attorneys. When the intended results weren't achieved, Tommy Thompson, a former OST deputy who retired earlier this year, cut off BIA's project money.

Publicly, it wasn't like that. Slonaker and McCaleb presented a united front and promised to work together. They agreed on BITAM. They praised Norton for taking "bold steps" to fix the system. Then they both left the Interior amid massive upheaval.

Even though BITAM was killed -- thus keeping BIA intact, to the satisfaction of tribal leaders -- OST is emerging with the spoils. The agency will get a significant boost in funding, resources and new hires. Norton also thinks the world of Erwin and Ross Swimmer, the new special trustee.

These days, BIA concerns are hardly about OST. Officials and employees in the field have a common refrain: No one tells us anything. Seeking details about the pending reorganization of both entities, many are left in the dark.

"They're not scumbags, they're not thieves," said John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma. "They're not idiots. They're hard-working people who spend every day of their life trying to make the beneficiaries' lives better."

Special Master Report:
Interim Report of the Special Master Regarding the Filing of Interior's Eighth Quarterly Report (April 21, 2003)

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:
McCaleb latest in long line of DOI departures (11/25)
Norton 'incapable' of reform, say trust experts (09/25)
How to Mismanage Indian Trust Assets Without Really Trying (08/07)
Feathers ruffled in and out of Indian Country (07/31)
Top trust reform official comes under fire (05/21)
Feisty memos at heart of trust reform feud (05/20)
Key trust reform player leaving BIA (02/28)
TAAMS failure traced to promoted manager (12/20)
Memo: Solicitor's order was 'intimidating' (10/10)
Interior takes lawyers off trust fund (9/14)
Retaliation charged as BIA official jumps ship (7/25)
Heartaches come for trust fund employees (7/25)

Copyright © Indianz.Com

Stay Connected

On Facebook

On Twitter

On Google+

On SoundCloud

More Headlines

Native Sun News: Lakota swimmers promote healthy lifestyles (11/30)
Ivan Star Comes Out: Indoctrinated at Indian boarding school (11/30)
Brandon Ecoffey: President of tribal college takes aim at paper (11/30)
Bobbi Rose Nez: Big Brothers Big Sisters reaches Native youth (11/30)
Terry Brunner: USDA helping tribes build stronger economies (11/30)
Alice Soscia: Connecticut tribes share wealth with community (11/30)
Brigid Harrison: Lenni-Lenape Nation battles for recognition (11/30)
Supreme Court throws wrench into Native Hawaiian election (11/30)
Official in Paraguay fired for kicking Indian woman in stomach (11/30)
Jamul Indian Village slated to open $390M casino in July 2016 (11/30)
Native Sun News: Tribal member speaks out against fracking (11/27)
Lakota Country Times: Rosebud mothers address meth issues (11/27)
Tim Giago: Walk a mile in the moccasins of Native Americans (11/27)
Vince Two Eagles: Focus on being thankful this holiday season (11/27)
Native Sun News: Keystone fighters celebrate permit's defeat (11/27)
Kevin Leecy: Tribes remain a vital segment of our community (11/27)
Steven Newcomb: Even media treats our nations as 'nothing' (11/27)
Ray Cook: Thanksgiving flies in the face of original Americans (11/27)
Terese Mailhot: Racism prevails in American popular culture (11/27)
Ilya Somin: Persistent 'myth' justified taking of Indian lands (11/27)
Ak-Chin Indian Community sued for same-sex marriage ban (11/27)
Cahuilla Band celebrates new travel center at gaming facility (11/27)
Opinion: Don't break promise to Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe (11/27)
Native Sun News: Family questions FBI on reservation death (11/25)
Lakota Country Times: Rosebud students earn top scholarship (11/25)
Brandon Ecoffey: Making a difference for people on Pine Ridge (11/25)
Yurok Tribe: Mourning the passing of 'visionary' Troy Fletcher (11/25)
Ned Blackhawk: Supreme Court case jeopardizes tribal rights (11/25)
Steve Russell: The real origins of the world's terrorism crisis (11/25)
Ramona Peters: Sharing a Wampanoag story of Thanksgiving (11/25)
Yatibaey Evans: Let's all teach the truth about Native history (11/25)
Martie Simmons: Every Native parent dreads this time of year (11/25)
Eric Metaxas: The 'miracle' of Squanto and first Thanksgiving (11/25)
Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to late Billy Frank Jr (11/25)
Oneida Nation opens first branch location of tribal-owned bank (11/25)
Virginia tribes continue to pay tribute required by 1677 treaty (11/25)
Chukchansi Tribe reaches new agreement for shuttered casino (11/25)
Poarch Band to welcome visitors to $65M expansion at casino (11/25)
Stillaguamish Tribe debuts eatery and microbrewery at casino (11/25)
Connecticut tribes consider proposals for third gaming facilty (11/25)
Mark Pilarski: Why are games different at some tribal casinos? (11/25)
Tribes seek support for Native language instruction programs (11/24)
Rep. Mullin confirms divisions in Indian Country on Carcieri fix (11/24)
more headlines...


Home | Arts & Entertainment | Business | Canada | Cobell Lawsuit | Education | Environment | Federal Recognition | Federal Register | Forum | Health | Humor | Indian Gaming | Indian Trust | Jack Abramoff Scandal | Jobs & Notices | Law | National | News | Opinion | Politics | Sports | Technology | World

Indianz.Com Terms of Service | Indianz.Com Privacy Policy
About Indianz.Com | Advertise on Indianz.Com

Indianz.Com is a product of Noble Savage Media, LLC and Ho-Chunk, Inc.