FROM THE ARCHIVE

Allegations Concerning Conduct of Department of the InteriorEmployees Involved in Various Aspects of the Cobell Litigation
Or How to Mismanage Indian Trust Assets Without Really Trying

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WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 7, 2002

Part III in an ongoing series on Indian Trust: Conflicts of Interest.

After a bitter confirmation battle that saw her receive more negative votes than any of her predecessors, Gale Norton was unceremoniously sworn in as Secretary of Interior on January 31, 2001. Her problems with the Indian trust fund began about three hours later.

Accompanying Norton to the top was Sue Ellen Wooldridge, a lawyer who worked for California's attorney general. Their new relationship was a perfect fit -- Norton being the top law enforcer in her home state of Colorado for a record two terms and Wooldridge knowing a thing or two about monumental litigation disputes like trust.

It took a few more months to discover that appearances aren't all they are cracked up to be. Wooldridge, according to a court investigator, took the fall for one of Norton's first official actions on Indian trust, a now-scrapped plan to conduct a statistical sampling of funds owed to more than 500,000 American Indians.

And fellow GOP Tom Slonaker, who joined the Department of Interior months earlier and ran the ship for a couple short weeks in January, quickly became the internal critic everyone -- the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Congress -- got tired of listening to. "They didn't trust Slonaker, Slonaker didn't trust the lawyers, and BIA felt that the endgame of trust reform was to gut BIA," Wooldridge recalled.

"Everyone was playing defense," she would tell department investigators.

It took several more months before the endgame was actually realized.

"I came into this job as a Republican at the behest of a Democratic White House," Slonaker later came to say in an interview after being unceremoniously ousted from his position as Special Trustee for American Indians. "I didn't need to do this."

"I'm going back into retirement."

Coaxed (Or Pressured?) Into Action
Slonaker's reputation as an obstacle preceded him but not because of anything he'd actually done. By the time he arrived in Washington, D.C., in June 2000, the Office of Special Trustee was seen as anti-Indian, anti-reform and anti-litigation.

In short, the OST "didn't want to play," Phillip Brooks of the Department of Justice later recalled.

Tommy Thompson, who held the trustee position for more than a year after Paul Homan unceremoniously quit the Clinton administration, played into the testy atmosphere, according to critics. He came to inspire fits of anger among government attorneys, whose job is to defend mismanagement, and the BIA, a beleaguered and belittled agency eager to fend off a turf invasion.

Officials within the OST, were "always willing to throw stones but never willing to roll up their sleeves and work toward a solution to the problem," concluded Interior attorney Edith Blackwell. She, too, was eventually unceremoniously ousted from most trust matters.

So to Slonaker, a solution seemed easy enough. Managers of trust reform, largely within the BIA, weren't stupid but they didn't have all the tools needed to do their job, he believed. Deadlines slipped, key projects grew unwieldy and no one, an exasperated federal judge announced, was in charge.

Confronted with accusations that they weren't doing enough, Slonaker and his staff came to take on more roles than originally envisioned. OST kept asking for money and the department kept securing it and the Congress kept appropriating it -- more than $600 million -- all for efforts that would end up collapsing before their very eyes, even as some of them never really got off the ground.

"It was a gigantic mistake," Kevin Gover, former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, said in an interview.

Relevant Documents:
Full Report: Allegations Concerning Conduct of Department of the Interior Employees Involved in Various Aspects of the Cobell Litigation (June 2002)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://130.94.214.68/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

Related Stories:
Top trust official comes under fire (5/21)
Indian Trust: Conflicts of interest (5/20)
Official: Trust fund progress 'stretches credibility' (10/11)
Memo: Solicitor's order was 'intimidating' (10/10)
Interior infighting hampering trust fund fix (9/20)