Interior infighting hampering trust fund fix
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Although the government faces a daunting technical and policy task in correcting more than 100 years of financial mismanagement of the trust fund, internal battles at the Department of Interior are delaying what is owed to an estimated 300,00 American Indians throughout the country, court documents, reports and interviews show.

Charged by law to provide an accurate accounting of the funds owed to American Indians, the Interior has been struggling to do just that. Lack of adequate records, outmoded policies and outdated or non-existent computer systems have forced the government to start from square one.

But even though top officials say fixing those problems isn't "rocket science" and claim Bureau of Indian Affairs employees are committed to fixing the broken trust, high-level disputes over management, power structure and how to handle the five-year-old Cobell v. Norton lawsuit are hampering resolution.

The first indications came in late February, when an appeals court upheld a landmark ruling against the government. Soon after, the BIA's top computer official, who had once managed a $40 million software project now widely seen as a failure, raised serious concerns about the status of trust reform.

Dom Nessi's memo lead to outrage among the Cobell plaintiffs and members of Congress. Yet just a month later, Interior officials, including Special Trustee Tom Slonaker and BIA Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell, told a House committee that trust reform was working.

The united front belied an internal dispute court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III has since uncovered in three reports. According to Kieffer, lawyers at the Interior -- along with senior management, including Blackwell -- have repeatedly engaged in battles with Slonaker about the trust fund.

According to Kieffer's first report, senior management hatched a now-discarded plan to conduct a statistical sampling of the trust accounts over the objections of Slonaker's office. The plan resulted in a year and one-half of no progress to provide Indian beneficiaries a report of the money they are owed, wrote Kieffer.

And when Slonaker tried to present what he considered a more accurate view of the trust reform project, his comments were edited out, according to Kieffer's second report about the Trust Assets and Accounting Management System (TAAMS). The revelation has since led Interior Solicitor Bill Myers, a Bush appointee, to remove two of his attorneys from the trust fund.

But Kieffer's recently released report on data cleanup points to trouble at the top. When Slonaker objected to a court-mandated quarterly report now two weeks overdue, Myers subjected him to "criticism and obstruction," said Kieffer.

Kieffer also blasts the Interior for the state of communication between Slonaker and his boss, Secretary Gale Norton. Instead of meeting with Slonaker face-to-face about what appear to be serious misgivings about reform, she instead sent him a puzzling letter questioning his obstinance.

"The Secretary’s letter revealed an apparent lack of direct communications with the Special Trustee and confusion," over his objections, wrote Kieffer.

It is a footnote, however, that is more telling: "Would it not have been more expedient for the Secretary to meet with her Special Trustee and the Solicitor to learn of those concerns about trust reform operations rather than write him a letter?" Kieffer wonders.

"And why had not the Special Trustee met or talked to the Secretary about his concerns prior to addressing them in the Quarterly Report?" he added.

Kieffer goes on to question what Norton has claimed as progress in trust reform. In July, she signed a secretarial order giving Slonaker more power over the project.

But, according to Kieffer, the order may do little good due to the conflicts at the Interior. Since Slonaker has not been given direct authority over senior managers, he is unlikely to change the heart of the problem that has delayed justice to the Indian beneficiaries, said Kieffer.

"The genesis of the problem stems directly from the senior management," wrote Kieffer, "who have refused to conduct the historical accounting, covered up their mismanagement of TAAMS' development, and failed to effectively address the serious data cleanup issues or provide the management and resources necessary to accomplish that cleanup; all the while providing this Court with overly optimistic and misleading assessments of data cleanup and trust reform operations."

Congress has spent $514 million on trust reform and has indicated an unwillingness to dedicate more unless given proof that certain projects are working. Hearings on the trust fund are expected to be scheduled soon.

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

More on Kieffer's Reports:
Norton hit on trust fund progress (9/18)
Norton pushes trust fund progress (8/27)
Norton challenges trust fund monitor (8/23)
Court report criticizes trust fund software (8/10)
Court monitor sets sights on software system (8/1)
Norton slammed by trust fund monitor (7/12)