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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)

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