FROM THE ARCHIVE

Memo sounded early warning on TAAMS

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MONDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2002

Long before his infamous "imploding" memo became the subject of media coverage, Congressional testimony and a court monitor, the first project manager of a $40 million trust accounting system warned that the government was spreading "misinformation" about the now-failing effort.

But Dom Nessi's dire projections were never made public and, like numerous other disclosures, were never revealed to a federal judge overseeing trust reform at the Department of Interior. That is, until last week, when U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth asked to see the document that someone, for whatever reason, suppressed.

"There is too much misinformation present, some normal in [a] fast-moving project," wrote Nessi in April 2000, "but much of its [sic] is purposely planted by others."

Addressed to a Department of Justice attorney fired from the case last fall, the memo came up as Nessi was testifying during the Bush administration's ongoing contempt trial. Nessi said he drafted it to respond to what he felt were misconceptions about the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), originally pitched as the solution to more than a century of financial mismanagement.

Unlike the February 2001 memo on the overall state of trust reform, however, the document never found its way into Lamberth's lap. Yet in it, Nessi addressed a number of concerns that have become central to the system's failures -- and the charges Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb now face.

Included is the realization that data cleanup was a much more serious project than anyone realized. "The department continues to gain better insight into the breadth of data cleanup," he wrote.

"However, it is not often clear as to how long the data cleanup will take at a particular site," he continued. The status of cleanup is the focus of one contempt charge.

And contrary to the assertions of Norton's legal team and a representative of the Texas company developing TAAMS, Nessi says the system has been using "live data" belonging to Indian account holders since November 1999. "It is not test data," he writes.

The issue has been a concern to Lamberth, when told a test last summer corrupted existing trust data. But in previous testimony, Deborah McLeod, the TAAMS manager at Applied Terravision, denied that could ever happen.

Whether the government accurately reported such a serious bug is yet the subject of another contempt charge.

When Nessi wrote the memo, he testified that he had just become the first-ever chief information officer at the BIA, a position he has since left for a similar one at the National Park Service. TAAMS was eventually passed on the project to Chet Mills, he said.

TAAMS has since been reassigned to Donna Erwin, an deputy within the Office of the Special Trustee. According to the department's most recent quarterly report, she is detailed to work under Ross Swimmer, who told Lamberth that development on the system has been halted until further review.

Nessi's testimony continues today. He has been under cross-examination by an attorney representing 300,000 Indian beneficiaries since Friday morning.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://130.94.214.68/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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