FROM THE ARCHIVE
Top trust fund official questioned
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WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2001

Even though he oversees the government's failing efforts to fix the broken system, a role to be retained under a proposed reorganization, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's top trust fund official doesn't need to verify her court-mandated status reports in order for the updates to be truthful, lawyers have told a federal judge.

Special Trustee Tom Slonaker over the past year has raised increasingly grave warnings about the reports, including his refusal to certify the most recent one, Norton's defense team acknowledges. But she can legally ignore his objections by asking senior managers over whom Slonaker has practically no authority to vouch for the documents, government attorneys are arguing.

Doing so is not "misleading," the attorneys claim. While there may be many "shortcomings" in the process by which the reports are approved, the government is not violating a court order to produce them every quarter, they added.

Contained in a filing sent to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth last week, the arguments come in response to criticism raised by a court monitor. Last month, Joseph S. Kieffer III slammed Norton for submitting what he called called an "untruthful, inaccurate and incomplete" report.

But beyond responding to Kieffer's findings, the filing represents growing concern from Congress, tribal leaders, individual Indian account holders and even the the Bush administration over the role Slonaker has played in the trust fund debacle. Congress created his position in an attempt to reform a severely mismanaged system but lawmakers now acknowledge their effort has not had much success.

"We passed the Trust Reform Act in 1994, and little has changed to resolve this multi-billion problem of trust monies owed to individual Indians as well as tribes," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, yesterday.

"In hindsight, we may not have passed this law," said an aide for another top lawmaker.

Despite the misgivings, there is reluctance to try and reform the office by giving it some "teeth," according to a senior Congressional aide. Norton in July tried to do just that, and issued a secretarial order giving Slonaker more power to direct reform.

But now that she has submitted an entirely new plan to overhaul the Bureau of Indian Affairs and place all trust duties under a different agency, Norton has effectively overruled an initiative she said would "streamline" a fix. And since Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said he has been in charge of trust reform since July, it has become increasingly clear that Slonaker's role has not been as important as Norton has trumpeted.

For some in Indian Country, that has been obvious from the start. During a radio discussion featuring Norton, a trust fund account holder from South Dakota yesterday asked her exactly what Slonaker has been doing all this time, if not from the start of her administration in which she pledged to make reform a priority.

"What has been done in the years it has been created?" the caller queried. "I have no idea. I get letters every now and then about the status of my account. I don't know what's being done."

Tribal leaders, too, have voiced doubts about the office. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, said Norton's last order "conflicted with [tribal] self-determination" and represented the lack of a tribal voice in the process.

Hoping to help solve accounting and other problems in collaboration with the Special Trustee, tribal leaders have pushed their own expertise, solutions and capabilities since its inception, Allen said. But due to the position's lack of power, and including former Secretary Bruce Babbitt's battles with the first official to hold the title, little has been done to advance tribal involvement, he claimed.

Under Norton's reorganization, Slonaker is to retain a level of oversight, according to court documents. During a session with a small group of tribal leaders last week, he speculated he will lose some of his functions to the new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management.

For fiscal year 2002, the Office of the Special Trustee has been given about $110 million.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Indian Country slams 'sham' consultation (11/21)
BIA reorganization a focus of NCAI (11/21)

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

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