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Swimmer putting mark on trust reform efforts

The Bush administration is looking to the private sector for help in fixing the broken Indian trust, a top official said on Tuesday.

After surviving a controversial yet subdued confirmation process, Ross Swimmer is putting together a trust reform team at the Department of Interior. As special trustee, he will oversee efforts that have largely failed to resolve a problem that dates back a century.

In hopes of turning the trust around, Swimmer, who headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the last three years of the Reagan administration, plans to rely on the advice of those outside of the Indian community. It's a process that he said began more than a year ago with a large scale effort to examine how the $3 billion Indian trust is managed.

"We had already been talking to a number of legal trust experts as well as large trust institutions as to how the private sector manages the trust and how the trust we operate both differs and compares," he said in an interview. "It's obvious to me that there are lessons to be learned, that that their input and insight into these kind of situations can be very helpful."

Swimmer said he won't be ignoring the views of Indian Country. By law, the special trustee is required to put together an advisory board that includes individual and tribal trust beneficiaries. Swimmer hopes to have the members selected within a month or so.

"I'm really looking for people who are willing to provide that public service and are dedicated to the cause," he said.

Tribal leaders aren't exactly convinced Swimmer will succeed. Many aren't fond of his efforts during the Reagan years to transfer their trust assets to a private bank, a move that had to be halted by Congress.

The problem is Swimmer's bleak record, said Tex Hall, the president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest inter-tribal organization. "Tribes feel like Ross isn't going to consult," he said. "He's going to select people Indian Country may not want."

Agreeing was Keith Harper, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) who is representing 500,000 Indian beneficiaries in a class action lawsuit. "I think everybody recognizes that the advisory board will be nothing more than the lackeys of Ross Swimmer," he said. Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the case, was removed from the board earlier this year along with several other prominent tribal leaders.

The advisory board is but one part of the trust reform efforts underway at the Interior and it's hardly controversial in light of a pending reorganization of the BIA and the Office of Special Trustee (OST). Tribes are opposing the changes, many of which were drafted by Swimmer, and some members of Congress are again calling for restraint. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing next week to consider all sides of the debate.

In the meantime, Swimmer is moving forward with key elements of the reorganization. OST will hire six new regional trust administrators, to be based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The administrators will make sure the department is meeting its fiduciary obligations to individual and tribal beneficiaries.

Swimmer is also hiring a director for the new Trust Program Management Center, based in Albuquerque as well. He said the center will revamp existing trust management processes. Again, he said he will look to outside sources -- banks, financial institutions, legal experts, academics -- for guidance.

"It can be that they offer advice on how we might do some re-engineering and fix our business processes to be a little more like private sector," he said.

Swimmer has been ensconced in trust reform since he rejoined the Interior in November 2001. He came on board a week after Secretary Gale Norton announced a plan to strip the BIA of its fiduciary duties and hand them to a new agency called BITAM. Tribal leaders unanimously fought the proposal and it was taken off the table last summer.

Swimmer was promised the BITAM job, an assistant secretary-level post, but it never materialized due to tribal opposition. He was nominated by President Bush for the special trustee job in January. The Senate voted 73 to 24 to confirm him, the first time in history an Indian affairs nominee was not unanimously approved.

Special Trustee Advisory Board:
Federal Register Notice (April 15, 2003)

Job Openings:
Regional Fiduciary Trust Administrator | Director, Trust Program Management Center | Deputy Special Trustee Trust Accountability

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Bush reform plans debated in trust fund trial (05/02)
DOI begins second transition period on Indian affairs (04/29)
Court investigator slams Interior's trust fund report (04/22)
Bunker metality evident in trust reform fight (04/22)
Ross Swimmer confirmed as special trustee (4/11)
Bush reorganization faces more obstacles (03/14)
Senate panel approves Ross Swimmer nomination (03/06)
Senate committee to take up Ross Swimmer again (3/4)
Daschle statement in opposition to Swimmer (3/4)
Senate committee to take up Ross Swimmer again (3/4)
Swimmer confirmation delayed (2/27)
Campbell asked to delay vote on Ross Swimmer (2/26)
Senate panel eager to confirm Swimmer as trustee (02/13)
Swimmer can't recall Navajo involvement (02/13)
Swimmer spoof rings true for some (2/12)
Swimmer slow to recall Reagan era 'fallout' (01/17)
Swimmer was promised BITAM job (1/16)
Tribes moving to oppose Swimmer nomination (01/06)
Unfit officials stick it to Indians again (12/09)
A super assistant secretary, in all but name (05/03)
Swimmer legacy still haunts BIA (02/12)
Reagan's Indian chief is back (11/20)

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