BIA agencies face new trust rating system
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The Department of Interior is planning to implement a rating system that will grade Bureau of Indian Affairs agencies throughout the country and limit their powers based on how well they handle their trust duties.

Acting special trustee Donna Erwin, a career bureaucrat with trust experience, is leading the initiative. She is working with the Department of Treasury, which uses a similar system to rate banks in the commercial world, to develop an Indian Country specific program.

"A lot of it is already existing," she said in an interview last week. "Let's not reinvent the wheel."

Within the next 60 days, Erwin surmised that the two departments, which share management duties of more than $3 billion in Indian funds, should have some sort of framework. "It's a combination of people coming to us and our people going back to [Treasury] . . . and saying, 'Here's the things that you should be looking at in a trust department,'" she said.

The Treasury agency that Interior is looking to for guidance is the Office of Comptroller Currency (OCC). The OCC regulates the nation's banks and has the power to impose fines and sanctions for non-compliance.

The OCC model won't go that far in Indian Country, according to Interior officials. But by rating the nearly 90 BIA agencies, which are typically the first point of contact for tribes and individual Indians, the initiative will definitely have an impact.

For example, an agency's rating, on a 1 to 5 scale, will be based on how well the staff interacts with a group of new hires known as trust officers, who are responsible for ensuring the department meets its fiduciary responsibilities. If an agency conflicts with its corresponding trust officer, its rating will be lowered.

As a result, an agency superintendent might not have the authority to approve leases for oil or gas drilling or even for a right-of-way. Approval will then rise to a higher level of bureaucracy, such as one of the 12 BIA area directors.

This relationship has some tribal leaders worried, mostly because it has yet to be defined. At a recent meeting with department officials, Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) questioned whether a routine dispute might rise so high as to require intervention by the Secretary of Interior.

Some tribal leaders are also concerned because the trust officers, about 87 altogether, will be employed by the Office of Special Trustee (OST), which the tribes and the Bush administration have sought to dismantle. Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), last week said money that should be used to beef up the BIA is instead being transferred "behind the scenes" to OST.

As acting deputy commissioner for Indian affairs, Terry Virden has line authority over the BIA agencies. In response to queries from George and others, he said he doesn't anticipate the trust officers having much of an impact on the agency-tribal relationship. The new hires, he said, are there for individual Indian beneficiaries.

"The individuals don't have a source to go to," he said of the current situation.

The government isn't the only one relying on the OCC for assistance. The plaintiffs in the Cobell lawsuit, which represents more than 500,000 individual beneficiaries, have based their some of their reform suggestions on the agency for much the same reason as the Interior: the framework already exists. "This is readily available," said Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the account holders.

Relevant Links:
Office of Comptroller Currency -
Office of Special Trustee -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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