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Court investigator slams Interior's trust fund report

Senior Department of Interior officials purposely stripped a report of negative information in order to deceive a federal judge about their efforts to fix the broken trust fund, a court investigator said on Monday.

In a 54-page interim report, special master Alan Balaran blasted the Interior for suppressing details that would have uncovered the true status of the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), a $40 million system that has symbolized the government's failed initiatives. He said the department was all too willing to substitute the truth for the "flawed" views of a consulting firm that was criticized by its own hired experts and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) staff.

The goal, Balaran concluded, was to avoid contempt charges pending against Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and then-assistant secretary Neal McCaleb. It didn't exactly work, though -- U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ended up excoriating both for misleading his court about TAAMS.

"The record reveals Interior's decision to substitute the unsupportable findings of an organization with a fledgling grasp of the complexities of the TAAMS system for the expert findings and opinions of NAID and the TAAMS Project Team was not inadvertent," Balaran wrote.

An Indian-owned company, Native American Industrial Distributors (http://www.naid.com) of Maryland, was hired to assess the TAAMS software, then under the direction of Chet Mills, a BIA employee. In November 2001, NAID drafted a document that identified funding problems, a lack of resources, security vulnerabilities and other obstacles facing the project.

The information was to be included in the 8th quarterly report to the court. But instead of revealing the flaws, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles -- a Bush appointee -- and other top officials made an 11th-hour request to substitute the report with one prepared by Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a management consulting firm.

In the midst of Norton's contempt trial, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in December 2001 rejected the request and the department was sent scurrying to finalize the overdue report. It was already more than a month late at that time.

Yet in spite of the court's directive against using the EDS report, the department went ahead and used the firm's findings, Balaran found. By the time the report was submitted in January 2002, senior officials under the direction of Griles had replaced NAID's less than glowing views with those of EDS.

NAID and BIA criticism of EDS was also suppressed, Balaran's report stated. Donna Erwin, a senior official handpicked by Griles to oversee TAAMS, advised NAID to "to be less blunt in future reports," according to notes of a conversation taken by an NAID employee.

As the debacle was unfolding, Ross Swimmer in late November 2001 was named director of the Office of Indian Trust Transition. He was put in charge of compiling the 8th quarterly report because former special trustee Tom Slonaker objected to the inaccuracies of the 7th report.

At the same time, Erwin was placed under Swimmer's direction and the TAAMS project was taken from the BIA and moved to the Office of Special Trustee (OST), where it remains. Swimmer was confirmed as special trustee by a 72-24 Senate vote on April 10. He now refers to TAAMS as "Trust Systems."

Norton went onto praise Swimmer for preparing the 8th quarterly report. In a scathing memo to Slonaker, she said it was the only one that "received any positive feedback."

Keith Harper, an attorney for the 500,000 plaintiffs in the Indian trust fund lawsuit, said Balaran's report will be filed with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel on Thursday will review Norton's recent contempt conviction. one of the charges was for submitting misleading reports to the court.

"Even during the contempt trial, they continued to obfuscate in order to ensure that the court would not learn of the depth of their misdeeds," Harper said of the Interior officials.

Dan DuBray, an Interior spokesperson, did not return a request for comment.

McCaleb was held in contempt along with Norton. He retired in December 2002, citing the litigation.

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

Relevant Documents:
Draft 8QR: TAAMS (November 2001) | Final 8QR: TAAMS (January 2002)

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:
Norton gets another day in court (4/22)
Court looks into TAAMS 'concealment' (11/07)
Court probes Norton's trust fund report (10/11)
Norton's witness on TAAMS does damage (09/23)
Top trust reform official comes under fire (05/21)
Feisty memos at heart of trust reform feud (05/20)
On trust, the problems remain the same (05/13)
A super assistant secretary, in all but name (05/03)
Memo sounded early warning on TAAMS (2/4)
Trust system takes center stage in contempt (2/1)
Trust reform update sheds some light (1/22)
Norton: Trust reform blueprint 'obsolete' (1/18)
Under watch of Swimmer, TAAMS halted (1/18)
Norton signs trust reform update (1/17)
Witness testifies against software corruption (1/15)
TAAMS: The Titanic Failure (12/20)
TAAMS failure traced to promoted manager (12/20)
Norton ordered to submit trust fund report (12/18)
Official: Trust fund fix at 'great risk' of failure (10/10)
Memo: Solicitor's order was 'intimidating' (10/10)
Interior delaying trust reform report (9/6)

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