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Swimmer takes stand in Indian trust fund trial

The federal judge overseeing the Indian trust on Wednesday expressed skepticism about failed efforts to fix the broken system, challenging special trustee Ross Swimmer to explain why the Bush administration's plans won't suffer the same fate.

"See, I'm very pessimistic," U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said in Washington, D.C, citing years of broken promises made to his court.

"Sitting there right in that same chair four years ago this summer, a witness told me exactly what you just said," he later told Swimmer. "Has anything been accomplished in four years?"

"I will be sitting here four years from now asking that," he added.

Swimmer, charged by Congress to oversee reform of the century-old trust, defended the Department of Interior's latest efforts, which include a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an expansion of the Office of Special Trustee. He said top officials are committed to fixing the system, have developed a "comprehensive" strategy to address long-standing problems and have secured historic funding in the coming year.

"I think we will have to fight for change," he acknowledged at one point. "It is extremely difficult to change the culture ... to a fiduciary trust responsibility."

"Change is coming," the former assistant secretary and former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation also said, "like it or not."

Lamberth pressed Swimmer to explain why he should believe the government, saying he was burned for giving former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt "the benefit of the doubt" when it came to a $40 million computer software project that was supposed to modernize the trust. Even Swimmer called the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) a "debacle" but said some of the work could be salvaged and that the department was on a mission to "re-engineer" its duties.

"Four years later, we don't have TAAMS, we don't have the automated system online," Lamberth observed. "You're still telling me the same thing."

"I am telling you the same thing," Swimmer told the judge.

Lamberth gave credit to the Bush administration for seeking more funding to carry out reform, noting that "money makes a difference." But he was concerned about the lack of clear time-frames in the latest plans.

For example, Swimmer said the re-engineering effort, known in Indian Country circles as the "to-be" project, won't be complete until March or April of 2004. Even then, it won't be implemented for at least another year, he added.

Lamberth said that could end up passing the buck to a new set of government officials. "So by the end of this administration, they'll be ready?" he asked of the new plans.

"Well, let's hope not, your honor," Swimmer responded, chuckling a bit.

Lamberth also said he was "disappointed" to learn about a movement underway in Congress to strip the Bush administration's historical funding request from $130 million to $75 million. The House Appropriations Committee yesterday adopted language that would instead direct Secretary Gale Norton to develop a settlement program.

"I don't know what's in the appropriations," Swimmer said.

Swimmer, confirmed to his post in April after serving in another Interior capacity since November 2001, was on the stand yesterday for about two and one-half hours. He is the Department of Justice's last witness in the ongoing trial, which started May 1 and is going to wrap up within the next week or so.

Keith Harper, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund and a Cherokee tribal member, will start his cross-examination of Swimmer this morning. Testimony is expected to run into early next week, attorneys for the plaintiffs said yesterday.

After Swimmer is off the stand, the plaintiffs plan to call three or four rebuttal witnesses, including an aide to the late former U.S. Congressman Mike Synar, the Democrat from Oklahoma whose "Misplaced Trust" report highlighted some of the controversy during Swimmer's Reagan-era tenure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
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

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Swimmer testimony to come at end of Cobell trial (06/05)
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Lamberth criticizes interference with trust fund case (05/22)
Tribes oppose OST expansion into Indian County (5/22)
Swimmer: Don't fear changes at Interior (5/22)
On trust, Swimmer turns to private sector (5/14)
Trial in Cobell trust fund case kicks off (05/02)
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Cobell v. Norton Recap: Day 1 of Trial 1.5 (05/02)
Court tackles trust accounting and reform plans (05/01)

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