Norton in full damage control mode
Facebook Twitter Email

If Secretary of Interior Gale Norton had her way, her vision of trust reform would be a reality by now.

The "consultation" meetings with Indian Country would be complete. The Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM), or something very much like it, would be up and running.

EDS Corporation would be closely monitoring her department's progress, maybe even authoring the quarterly reports provided to a federal judge. Special Trustee Tom Slonaker's "oversight" would be whittled to a $10 million budget or so.

And Ross Swimmer would be having his way with $300 million in federal funds -- presumably trying to finish what he started more than a decade ago when he tried to parcel out tribal trust assets to a bank without first accounting for the funds. Or so he told Indianz.Com when he was brought on board by the Bush administration.

But during the last three months, Norton's reality met another one imposed by Indian Country, Congress and the court. Confronted with a grueling contempt trial, a consultation process best characterized as a 50-hour gripe session and restless lawmakers ready to do something, she has been criticized by almost everyone and praised by practically none.

And she has moved away from action -- which her aggressive BITAM schedule represented -- to something else entirely.

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is in damage control mode.

Of course, some might argue she has been there for quite some time. One of her first actions in office was "so clearly contemptuous" that U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wondered why he should hold a contempt trial to conclude what he already knew.

Norton, however, appears to be realizing it just now. After Congressional testimony widely seen as a disaster, she has sought in the past few weeks to battle the bad publicity by softening her stance before the court, sending opinion statements to the press and dispatching top officials to extend the olive branch to a still angry tribal leadership.

Meanwhile, her aides admit BITAM has been axed as she sends a message of cooperation that was absent prior to her November 14 announcement of the overhaul. "While we work with tribal leaders to evaluate the options for reorganizing our trust-management system, all of us need to focus on the overriding test for whatever plan we work out," she writes in her latest commentary.

"Is it the most effective method of delivering trust services and other functions to American Indians and tribal governments?" she asks.

Whether this new tack is working is still up in the air. Preliminary signs aren't positive.

Tex Hall, President of the National Congress of American Indians, said tribal leaders need to see a personal commitment -- and an apology -- from Norton repair the damage. At the behest of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), he begrudgingly said tribes would return to the table but complained anyway.

"These negotiations are a one-way street," he told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

To outside observers, the latest developments might be amusing if they weren't so indicative of the historic neglect. "This is not brain science," joked trust attorney Don Gray, who testified at two Congressional hearings last month, saying in plain terms that the department lacked brains and science.

Comments like these sit well with the plaintiffs in the class action which has run for more than five years with no end in sight. Filed on behalf of 300,000 American Indians who have never been provided an accounting of their funds, the case has seen its fair share of delays only to end up with another Interior Secretary who promises to fix the broken system.

"They just don't have the institutional capacity," said Native American Rights Fund attorney Keith Harper. "They just don't have the leadership."

Despite the problems, not everything has come to a halt. Tribal leaders are meeting with department officials this week to discuss their latest demands, which will include seeking additional funds for their trust reform task force and greater involvement into the latest EDS contract.

And Lamberth continues to mull whether to sanction Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb for their handling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Attorneys for both sides of the case submitted their proposed findings last week and a decision is expected at the end of the month.

Until then, the department will keep trying to get its computer systems reconnected to the Internet. About half, including ones that process payments to Indian Country, remain offline, a situation which might take seveal more months to unravel.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

Related Stories:
New trust reform contract draws complaints (3/1)
BITAM comments still accepted (3/1)
Key trust reform player leaving BIA (2/28)
McCaleb says Cobell a 'blessing' (2/28)
Tribes to hold Indian trust forum (2/28)
Pot chairman supports Swimmer (2/28)
Senate takes shot at trust fund (2/27)
Sharon Blackwell leaving BIA (2/27)
Norton retreats on BITAM proposal (2/26)
NCAI's Hall still doubts Norton (2/26)
Daschle: 'Significant' questions on BITAM (2/26)
Norton admits BITAM not only solution (2/25)
ICT: Norton axes 'superior' comment (2/25)
Tribes again criticize BITAM (2/15)
Senate panel grills Griles on trust fund (2/13)
Swimmer legacy haunts BIA (2/12)
Congress urged to act on failed trust act (2/11)
Dog and pony show moves to Congress (2/7)
Norton dodges questions on Internet shutdown (2/7)
Norton goes before House panel (2/7)
Editorial: Take trust from Interior (2/7)
Tribes take assault to Congress (2/6)
Judge rejects 'improper' request by Norton (2/6)
Trust drives small increase in BIA budget (2/5)
Interior security funds outlined (2/5)
Monitor's 'only hope' seen as termination (2/4)
Memo sounded early warning on TAAMS (2/4)
Indian Country lacks confidence in Norton (2/4)
On the Indian trust bandwagon (2/4)
No light at end of Interior tunnel (2/4)
Norton's weekend in the woods (2/1)
Norton sketches trust reform budget (2/1)