Norton hit on trust fund progress
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Ignoring warnings made by top aides despite pledging repeatedly that trust reform is one of her top priorities, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has kept a key project in a state of "disarray," a court monitor charged in a report released on Monday.

The project, known as data cleanup, is so far behind schedule that it may take decades to complete, said Joseph S. Kieffer III in a 48-page report. But even if her department undergoes a "major reorganization," Norton has little assurance she will fulfill promises made to Congress, the courts and American Indian beneficiaries, because some senior managers refuse to accept criticism and have tried to hide the project's failings, he added.

Appointed by a federal judge in April, Kieffer has watched over the Interior's attempt to fix more than one hundreds years of mismanagement of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts. Representing an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country, about $400 million flows into the accounts annually.

But since the government has kept dismal records, there is no guarantee the account balances are correct. To ensure the accuracy of the accounts, the Interior has initiated a project to "clean up" the records.

To date, however, there has been almost no progress on the project. Interior officials have acknowledged privately that they have been "disappointed" with the handling of data cleanup, headed by Bureau of Indian Affairs manager Chet Mills, who is also overseeing the controversial Trust Assets and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) project.

At the same time, they have warned Norton of its failings. In a memo written just days before Norton told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that the Bush administration takes trust reform "seriously," the BIA's former chief computer official said data cleanup needed additional resources and a new manager.

Data cleanup has "proven to be a far greater challenge than anyone previously considered," wrote Nessi on February 23.

Even though Nessi recommended the BIA take action "as quickly as possible," the Bush administration has never responded to the request. Nessi has since left the BIA to work for the National Park Service.

Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, who reports directly to Norton, has also sounded alarms on data cleanup. But these have gone unheeded by his boss, who went so far as to question his objections to a court-mandated status report that is now two weeks past due.

When Tom Slonaker tried to point out that "the king may have no clothes" and provide a more accurate status of trust reform, he was subjected to "criticism and obstruction" by the Interior's top lawyer, Solicitor William Myers, "at the direction of the Secretary," said Kieffer.

In her defense, Norton has cited a number of steps she has taken to revamp how the trust fund is handled, including giving more power to Slonaker. Yet she has requested more time to update the court on its progress, drawing criticism from Kieffer.

"The cry that 'it didn’t happen on our watch' can no longer provide a defense for this administration," said Kieffer. "The plea that this administration must be given more time to institute its strategies and management plans over trust reform because it has had so little time to conduct a review of trust reform rings hollow."

Interior spokesperson Stephanie Hanna said the department has "not had a chance to thoroughly review the court monitor's report." But she said the Bush administration "feels that we are taking the right steps" to advance trust reform.

Get the Report:

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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