FROM THE ARCHIVE
Shortcomings of trust fund accounting plan detailed
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WEDNESDAY, JULY 2, 2003

Failing to account for mismanagement of the Indian trust is a breach of the federal government's responsibilities, special trustee Ross Swimmer said on Tuesday.

On the stand for his fifth day of testimony in the ongoing trust fund trial, Swimmer was presented with numerous examples of problems that have plagued the system for more than a century. Missing checks, uncollected payments and other irregularities were documented in letters from Indian beneficiaries, internal reports, third-party assessments and Congressional investigations.

Some of the complaints outlined during yesterday's proceedings came to light during Swimmer's late-80s tenure as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But when asked whether he corrected the errors, he said he hadn't.

"I don't believe I tried to address individual findings," he testified. "It was to address fixing the system."

At the same time, the former assistant secretary said the Department of Interior has an obligation to follow up on any allegations of wrongdoing. "I would think someone would have looked into these comments," Swimmer said. "These comments deserve an explanation."

"I would say it's a breach of the responsibility" if there was no explanation, he added.

Throughout his testimony, Swimmer readily admitted to the department's historic shortcomings. He said the Bush administration's reform plans, which include new computer systems and a "re-engineering" of trust practices, will improve services to Indian beneficiaries.

Fixing past mistakes was an entirely different matter. The department estimates that it will take five years and $335 million to account for the "funds" in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Officials say this will result in a high level of confidence in the account balances.

But under questioning from Native American Rights Fund attorney Keith Harper, Swimmer said the department's historical accounting plan won't be able to account for every single error in the system. A beneficiary who never received payments for use of his or her land but whose account was closed before 1994 will never receive an accounting, he acknowledged.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth also noted that the use of statistical sampling for transactions of less than $5,000 will have an impact. A beneficiary who is rightfully owed $2,000 for a missing lease payment could be skipped over if the transaction is not selected as part of the sampling, Swimmer admitted.

Still, he argued that the real-life scenarios raised in court were negligible. "It is possible that you can have an error that is not detected," he said. "However, it is not likely."

Harper completed his cross-examination of Swimmer yesterday but the Department of Justice is keeping him on the stand to respond to additional questions. Testimony will resume today.

The trial is expected to wrap up by July 8.

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

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Swimmer testifies on trust fund accounting (6/27)
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