FROM THE ARCHIVE
Norton blasted on trust fund
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WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2001

The government's three-year-old plan to fix the broken trust fund "may not be capable of repair" because Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has failed to take responsibility, a court monitor charged in a report highly critical of the Bush administration on Tuesday.

Although numerous management problems existed before Norton took office nine months ago, they have "increased in severity" under her watch, said Joseph S. Kieffer III. Instead of supporting her top trust fund official Tom Slonaker, she and senior aides have rejected his advice and subjected him to "questioning," thereby undermining his authority throughout the department, he added.

And even though Norton has taken credit for taking steps to "streamline" trust reform, these efforts are inadequate, continued Kieffer. A new trust fund office, a special secretarial order and a $1 million effort to have an outside management consulting firm assess the government's capabilities are destined to fail because she has not addressed key reform issues that have been made evident to her in recent months, he has concluded.

"There is no one in charge of trust reform operations," wrote Kieffer in the 30-page report. "There is no one who knows what is necessary or how to correct trust reform management, communications, and systems problems to bring about successful trust reform."

Kieffer's caustic criticism comes after the Interior turned in its latest trust fund status report. Without approval from a federal judge, the government submitted it a month late, citing a need to clear up concerns raised by Slonaker, a Clinton appointee retained by the Bush administration to oversee the trust accounts of an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country.

But, according to Kieffer and other court documents, Norton did little -- if anything at all -- to respond to Slonaker's reservations. Instead, her lawyers, Solicitor Bill Myers and senior management did all they could to avoid taking responsibility, said Kieffer.

The result, wrote Kieffer, was that Norton "verified an untruthful, inaccurate, and incomplete" status report covering the months of May, June and July.

"No senior DOI official would touch that report with a ten-foot pole," he added.

Already having cited Norton and a number of other officials in their court filings, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit said they would seek sanctions against government attorneys and senior management for "aiding and perpetrating a fraud on the court."

In particular, said Dennis Gingold, government attorneys have engaged in "unethical" conduct worthy of fines and potential disbarment. "That is about as severe misconduct that a[n] . . . attorney can ever engage in," he said.

The Interior would not comment specifically on Kieffer's report, only saying Norton would respond to the federal court overseeing the Cobell lawsuit within 10 days. Special Trustee Slonaker, through an aide, declined to comment. Myers, though his office, deferred to the Interior.

"It is a priority of the department to move the Indian trust accounting system into the 21st century and to identify and implement a method to make a historical accounting that will be funded by the Congress and is acceptable to the court," said spokesperson Nedra Darling.

Congress has already spent $614 million to fix the broken trust. A joint House-Senate committee last week approved approximately $150 million for fiscal year 2002 to fund efforts to correct more than 100 years of mismanagement. The bill aways final action by Congress, which is expected this week.

The government says the Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts represent about $500 million in trust assets. But the government cannot guarantee the accuracy of any account despite being charged by law to do so.

Get the Report:
FOURTH REPORT OF THE COURT MONITOR (10/16)

Today on Indianz.Com:
Interior Solicitor on trust fund crash course (10/17)

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Office of the Solicitor - http://www.ost.doi.gov/sol
Trust Management Improvement Project - http://www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Trust fund progress testing 'credibility' (10/11)
Trust fund fix risking 'failure' (10/10)
Memo: Solicitor's order was 'intimidating' (10/10)
In The Hoop: Interior Bungling (10/10)
Infighting delaying trust fund fix (9/20)
Objections delaying trust fund report (9/6)
Norton pushes trust fund progress (8/27)

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