FROM THE ARCHIVE

Report: Litigation threatening reform project

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MARCH 8, 2001

The Bureau of Indian Affairs continues to meet a number of goals aimed at fixing the historically mismanaged trust fund system but protracted litigation is threatening the efforts of top officials, according the latest status report on the project.

"[T]ime spent on responses required for the Cobell litigation continues to adversely impact the time and energies of the Special Trustee," the report states. "In particular, managers in the Office of Trust Records are currently being deflected from trust record reform by the pending investigation by the Special Master."

Facing a potential contempt of court trial recommended by Special Master Alan Balaran, the government is indeed under the gun. And with the second phase of the trial yet to begin, the battle is nowhere near completion.

But as the plaintiffs in the billion dollar lawsuit point out, the government wouldn't be wasting its time if the Departments of Interior and Treasury would just do their jobs. Led by Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker Elouise Cobell, the plaintiffs launched their action in 1996 on behalf of an estimated 300,000 American Indians whose trust assets are in such disarray that the government can't provide an accurate accounting.

As part of his landmark 1999 ruling, upheld last month by a federal appeals court, Judge Royce Lamberth forced the Department of Interior to provide the court with quarterly progress reports. The fifth such report was released last week, outlining a number of milestones reached.

Compared to the results of the fourth report, the government appears to be making progress. Only four out of 18 reform projects went uncompleted from November 1, 2000 to January 31, 2001. Last time around, the Interior failed to meet nearly half of its goals, leaving 15 out of 32 projects uncompleted from August 1, 2000 to October 31, 2000.

Perhaps more importantly, the Interior is making progress on its court-identified breaches of trust. Only one breach out of three went uncompleted from November 2000 to January 2001.

Yet a major component of the reform project, an automated system known as the Trust Asset and Account Management System (TAAMS), is still suffering from setbacks. Although the fifth report notes that no TAAMS milestones were due from November to January, in fact, three such projects identified as "Not Met" by the fourth report remain uncompleted.

Management issues also threaten trust reform, particularly TAAMS. Not only are there probably not enough managers currently assigned to this "intensive" program, there may not be enough to ensure its success beyond the Rocky Mountain Region, according to the report. The Rocky Mountain Region is being used as the testing grounds for TAAMS.

Despite the government's progress, Cobell said she was not at all surprised by its revelations. The latest report has only confirmed her numerous misgivings, she said.

"I've been reading all the court reports that go to Judge Lamberth," said Cobell. "They say the BIA missed this milestone, they missed this timeline, probate is backlogged, data cleanup is not working, TAAMS is not working."

"This cannot be tolerated," she added.

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA - www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Babbitt - www.indiantrust.com

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