FROM THE ARCHIVE
'Emergency' trust fund meeting requested
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MARCH 21, 2001

Responding to a top official's once-private revelation that the Department of Interior's trust reform project is slowly collapsing, the plaintiffs in the billion dollar trust fund lawsuit against the government on Tuesday demanded a federal judge set up an emergency meeting to discuss the matter.

On February 23, Bureau of Indian Affairs Chief Information Officer Dominic Nessi cited a laundry list of problems plaguing the government's nearly three-year-old attempt to provide an accurate accounting of assets held in trust for estimated 300,000 American Indians all over the country. Personality conflicts, lack of proper management, and a poorly implement plan "built on wishful thinking and rosy projections" were just some of the issues he raised in the private memo to Tom Slonaker.

"As a rule, I try not to make dire projections, but I am afraid in this case, I have no choice," wrote Nessi. "I believe that trust reform is slowly, but surely imploding at this point in time."

Despite such frankness, Nessi's charges went unreported for at least two weeks. In subsequent reports and court filings, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Slonaker, who as Special Trustee is the official financially responsible for trust accounts, failed to disclose any of Nessi's concerns, save for a brief mention in a court mandated quarterly report.

"[T]ime spent on responses required for the Cobell litigation continues to adversely impact the time and energies of the Special Trustee," observed Slonaker in the February 28 report.

It was only until last week that the government made public Nessi's memo and only to request more time to respond to issues raised by the plaintiffs. In a court filing yesterday, the plaintiffs, led by Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker, said such actions mandated their emergency request.

"[B]ecause irreparable harm surely will be inflicted on individual Indian trust beneficiaries if Mr. Nessi’s claims are true and action is not taken immediately to address fully the identified concerns, plaintiffs request that this Court convene an emergency status conference with all parties present as soon as possible," they said.

Slonaker, appointed by President Clinton in February 2000, is only the second Interior official to hold the title of Special Trustee. He replaced Paul Homan, who left the administration amid frustration and said Congress failed to fund his office properly.

Today, Slonaker will testify before the House Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations, which has jurisdiction over funding for the department. For fiscal year 2001, Congress appropriated some $80 million for reform efforts and $27 million for the trust fund litigation.

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA - http://www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.doi.gov/ost/index.html
The House Committe on Appropriations - http://www.house.gov/appropriations
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

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