FROM THE ARCHIVE

Tribes moving to oppose Swimmer nomination

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MONDAY, JANUARY 6, 2003

Tribal and Indian leaders voiced outrage last week upon learning that former assistant secretary Ross Swimmer has been nominated to oversee the trust fund accounts that he once tried to transfer to a private bank.

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton in a statement boasted that she couldn't "imagine a more qualified person" to serve as the Special Trustee for American Indians. "He has a lifetime of service to Indian Country as an advocate on behalf of tribes for tribal sovereignty through tribal self-sufficiency," she said on Friday.

But that glowing assessment was vehemently disputed by several key leaders. National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall, who is also chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, said Swimmer was "unqualified" to watch over billions of dollars in Indian money because he fails to meet the requirements Congress imposed on the position when it was created nearly a decade ago.

"If you look at the 1994 act, it clearly states that the Special Trustee must be qualified and have the experience overseeing a trust, working in a trust," he said. "Ross Swimmer clearly has none of that."

Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California, sits on an advisory board to the Special Trustee. She said she was "pretty astounded" to hear of Swimmer's appointment.

"I'm disappointed because I believe that he was in the assistant secretary position before and he couldn't, wouldn't or didn't deal with the problem at that time," she said. "I think there are individuals out there would be more sensitive and responsive to Indian Country."

"At this point i would have to be recommending to my colleagues that we oppose that confirmation," she added.

Elouise Cobell chairs the advisory panel but is also the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that seeks reform of monies held in trust for more than 500,000 American Indians. She received a phone call from Swimmer on Friday before the official announcement was made and characterized the conversation as an attempt to soften her criticism of the appointment.

"Here we go again. It's the same old, same old," Cobell said. "How did they think [tribes would] go along with him as Special Trustee? Thank god we're in court."

Swimmer, a former chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the last three years of the Reagan administration. Although his tenure ended in early 1989, it is still remembered as one of the most rocky periods in federal-tribal relations.

Incensed by Swimmer's attempts to transfer -- without consultation -- their funds to a private financial institution, tribal leaders turned to Congress for help. Lawmakers halted the proposed move, setting the stage for a 1994 act that requires the Department of Interior to account for the money.

That never happened under Swimmer's watch, critics point out, and he was never held accountable for a trust-related contract he signed that turned out to be a failure. So when he was asked to join the Bush administration in November 2001 under the guises of reforming the system, NCAI, which represents more than 200 tribes, quickly passed a resolution unanimously opposing his presence.

Hall said that tribes will be meeting later this week in Washington, D.C. to develop a strategy to fight Swimmer again. "It leaves the tribes to now look to Congress to say we don't agree with the nomination," he said. The two-day gathering will start on Friday.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which returns to Republican control under Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), would have to hold a confirmation hearing. Depending on how the Senate organizes, defeat in the panel could spell death for Swimmer.

Currently, Swimmer holds the title of director of the Office of Indian Trust Transition. He has control over most aspects of trust reform, including many that were taken away from former assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb. He oversees quarterly progress reports that are submitted to a federal judge and at one point watched over the Office of Historical Accounting.

As for the latest appointment, Mike Miller, a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation, said Swimmer's background as an attorney, banker and former tribal leader gives him "great insight" into the department's problems.

The special trustee position was most recently held by Tom Slonaker, a former trust banking executive who was forced out in July because he frequently criticized the Bush administration. His predecessor was Paul Homan, another trust expert, who quit the Clinton administration after former Secretary Bruce Babbitt stripped the post of most of its powers.

Donna Erwin, a high-ranking aide to Slonaker, has been acting as his replacement since July. She has trust experience. Swimmer once served as president of a bank but that bank did not have a trust department.

The Interior currently manages more than $3 billion in trust funds for individual Indian and tribal beneficiaries. In addition to about 262,000 individual accounts, there are about 1,400 accounts for 315 tribes.

Relevant Documents:
President Bush Today Announced His Intention to Nominate One Individual to Serve as a Member of His Administration (The White House 1/3) | American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 (Public Law 103-412)

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

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