FROM THE ARCHIVE

Senior trust reform official leaves Interior

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MONDAY, MARCH 10, 2003

A senior Department of Interior official who openly criticized the Clinton and Bush administrations for their handling of the Indian trust retired from federal service last week.

The departure of Tommy Thompson from the Office of Special Trustee was not unexpected. Sources close to the official, formerly the second-in-command at OST, predicted his resignation shortly after Tom Slonaker was ousted last summer as Special Trustee.

But critics of the government said it was indicative of the retaliation common against those who criticize the department's failed trust reform efforts. Thompson and Slonaker's predecessors during the Clinton administration were also forced to retire and resign due to pressure from top officials.

All, in fact, provided testimony in the ongoing Indian trust fund lawsuit, much to the detriment of the Interior.

"We're not surprised," said Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund. "People who have testified are not rewarded within the department. The department makes it very uncomfortable and sets the groundwork for those types of persons to leave at the same time they reward and promote people who are malfeasants."


Thompson, who came to OST in 1997 after a long career in the military and federal government, and Slonaker were not without their detractors. Subordinates blamed the pair for a trust records program that a court investigator said was in shambles. Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles eventually stripped Thompson of his oversight of the fledgling initiative.

And colleagues within the department, mostly political appointees, said he and Slonaker were not "team players." Thompson was a career bureaucrat while Slonaker was a Republican hired by a Democrat administration to sort out the mess.

Tribal leaders also said the OST was slow to recognize tribal sovereignty and the need to consult.

Nevertheless, Thompson's resignation, announced in an e-mail to OST employees, marks the departure of the last major critic at the Interior. Thompson served as acting special trustee prior to Slonaker's confirmation in July 2000. Both fought proposals they considered not to be in the best interests of Indian beneficiaries.

Thompson opposed a "consultation" process employed by the Clinton administration after a federal judge ordered the government to account for all Indian trust funds. He testified in court that it was a foregone conclusion that account holders wanted a full transaction-by-transaction record.

Former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt went ahead and approved a statistical sampling approach. Secretary Gale Norton affirmed the decision, then repudiated it and has since embraced sampling as one method to conduct an accounting.


Thompson and Slonaker also criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs for lacking the experience to manage and implement trust reform projects, including a $40 million software system deemed by everyone involved to be a failure. Thompson testified that the first project manager, Dom Nessi, failed to meet deadlines and discounted criticism.

Nessi ended up being promoted by former assistant secretary Kevin Gover but left the BIA amid an investigation into inadequate computer systems over which he had authority.

Thompson, who had been working full-time in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, could not be reached for comment over the weekend. In an internal e-mail, acting special trustee Donna Erwin said he "leaves behind a catalog of significant achievements."

"Knowing the federal government and the Department of the Interior as well as he does, he has been an asset to the department's efforts to reform the Indian trust management process," she wrote.

In a related development, Ken Rossman, the former director of the troubled trust records office also retired. Rossman had been serving as a special "assistant" to Erwin after being reassigned by Slonaker in the wake of the court investigation.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm

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