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Interior's number two takes lead on trust reform

With a showdown looming in federal court, the Department of Interior is in a rushed but concerted effort to prove to a skeptical judge that the government is in charge of trust reform.

By all accounts, it is a tough task for Secretary Gale Norton, her aides and her top officials. In just a little over a week, her defense team -- which has already faced criticism from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth -- must submit a response showing why she shouldn't be held in contempt for her handling of the assets of an estimated 300,000 American Indians.

But Norton must also argue why Lamberth shouldn't place the system into the hands of a receiver, or outside caretaker. The government has so far resisted the notion and although Norton's new attorneys could change course, it is unlikely the Justice Department would make such a drastic move.

To that end, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles has quickly inserted himself into the debacle over the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust since being sworn in to his post in July. As number two in command at the Interior, Griles has taken the lead to reform -- for lack of a better term -- trust reform.

By at least one public and embarrassing incident, the effort hasn't been a bursting success. A mass mailing Griles sent to 11,000 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Office of Special Trustee (OST) employees in response to special master Alan Balaran's recommendation of contempt caused a stir over anthrax in the Southwest as employees were sent home and told to burn a court order.

Still, officials and senior management have noted potential breakthroughs. Mindful of a November 30 court hearing with Lamberth that could serve as the start of a criminal and civil sanctions trial, Griles will be looking to have the Interior speak in "one voice" and avoid a collision course with contempt, they said.

"He has taken the lead in a very determined fashion," said one official in close contact with Griles.

A key component of Griles' effort is an independent assessment of the government's High Level Implementation Plan (HLIP) -- the blueprint to trust reform -- by EDS Corporation, a management consulting firm. Last Wednesday, top officials received an oral briefing from EDS, which is making a dozen or so specific recommendations covering everything from a $40 million software system widely seen as a failure to the cleanup of records dating back to 1887, when the IIM trust was initiated.

According to officials familiar with the private briefing, none of the recommendations are a surprise to the government and are similar to concerns Congressional investigators have recently relayed to the Interior. The recommendations also follow steps Special Trustee Tom Slonaker has been taking since Norton in July issued a secretarial order to "streamline" trust reform, they said.

Having cost the government $3 million, the review will include a "road map" that Norton's lawyers are expected to file in court next week. All told, it is hoped that EDS will bring "quite a bit of credibility" to the government's case, according to one official.

Beyond Griles' undertakings, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb has focused on reports by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III that have spelled out a particularly rocky relationship between the BIA and OST, which is overseen by Slonaker. To remedy problems that have festered over the years, McCaleb will be looking to make changes among his senior management team, which includes Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell, that will demonstrate proof of leadership to Lamberth.

Whether these latest rumblings will have an impact is an open question. A former lobbyist for the mining industry, Griles was a member of the Reagan administration, serving at the Interior -- along with Norton, incidentally -- when Congressional reports in no easy terms began broadcasting the failures of the IIM trust.

Yet not much has changed since Griles was last in a position of leadership. Despite numerous investigations, acts of Congress, secretarial orders and court decisions, the government still can't provide any beneficiary with an accounting of his or her funds.

But within the coming weeks, Interior officials insist the government will demonstrate its dedication to the trust. Changes that are occurring are "the reaction to some of the criticism" the department has faced, said spokesperson Keith Parsky.

"The main message is: 'Yes, everyone takes this seriously,'" said Parsky.

The Interior, of course, faces serious credibility problems that leave little room for failure. Whatever response the Bush administration has will depend on something that has so far proven difficult for the government to show: commitment.

"We've got to follow through and do what we told the court we're going to do," said one official, acknowledging past failures.

Department of Interior Profile:
Deputy Secretary: J. Steven Griles (3/9)

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Trust Management Improvement Project - http://www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Norton's defense off to a 'bad start' (11/2)
Judge ready to hold Norton in contempt (10/31)
Interior promises trust fund defense (10/31)
Judge: Norton's actions 'contemptuous' (10/30)
Trust fund defense team scrapped (10/30)
Action on Norton urged 'on all fronts' (10/29)
Norton views broken trust fund system (10/29)

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