FROM THE ARCHIVE

A super assistant secretary in all but name

Facebook Twitter Email
FRIDAY, MAY 3, 2002

Raising questions about reorganization efforts, and in potential violation of federal law, Ross Swimmer has amassed control over almost every single aspect of trust reform, according to court documents and government reports.

The power grab comes as Secretary of Interior Gale Norton faces criticism for attempting to scuttle the authority of the only government official charged with fixing the Indian trust system. Some of Special Trustee Tom Slonaker's key duties have been parceled out to Swimmer in spite of unanswered questions about his qualifications, court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer charged in a report this week.

The ever growing consolidation casts Swimmer, a former Reagan administration official, as a super assistant secretary of sorts, able to take on any trust project when deemed appropriate. Yet as a political card brought in by Norton at the height of controversy over her plan to create a new trust agency, he remains largely unaccountable to Congress, Indian Country and the court overseeing the debacle.

Since his appointment last November, Norton and her aides have shielded the past head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from complaints by Congress and tribal leaders. At a contentious House hearing in February, she openly scoffed at doubts expressed about his role at the Department of Interior.

Requests for Swimmer's removal by tribes, still stung by his late 1980s attempt to privatize their assets without their consent, go unheeded. Department officials decline, or refuse, depending on the case, public inquiries about his status -- including whether he is an employee or a high-priced consultant -- citing privacy issues.

Meanwhile, his reaches into trust matters have expanded. He currently watches over the failed $40 million Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), now called Trust Systems; data cleanup, renamed BIA Trust Data Quality Analysis; and probate, or the distribution of Indian assets to descendants.

Taking over a duty Slonaker once held, Swimmer is responsible for compiling court-mandated status updates. The process involves him summoning BIA project managers to explain their progress in a role not unlike one which might otherwise be handled by Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb.

In addition, he oversees the ongoing work of Electronic Data Systems (EDS), an information technology consulting firm Slonaker brought into the fold last summer. Tribal leaders, after questioning EDS' presence and the approval of more than $5 million in contracts to the firm against their objections, are just beginning to be included in this decision making process -- and only at their insistence.

It's his oversight of two other areas that may be the most troublesome, though. Although Congress in 1994 directed the Special Trustee to prepare a strategic guide to reform, Norton has tasked this effort to Swimmer and renamed it an "operations" plan.

Swimmer has also been given control over Bert T. Edwards, a former top official at the State Department charged with telling 300,000 Indian beneficiaries how much money they are owed, another Congressionally enumerated duty. The Office of Historical Trust Accounting works under the auspices of Swimmer's seemingly nebulous Office of Indian Trust Transition, an entity Norton created by secretarial fiat.

But if it comes down to a battle over who has the best interests of Indian beneficiaries at heart, there is no contest. In the most glowing of terms, Norton has clearly sided with Swimmer, as evidenced by a recent memo in which she blamed Slonaker -- who has 36 years of trust experience -- for the state of affairs.

"I am confident that Mr. Swimmer is very qualified to undertake these duties, and I don’t want to interrupt the progress that is being made," she wrote on April 17, telling Slonaker he is better off concentrating on what few tasks he has left lest those be stripped away too.

To the court, though, the answer may be different, as Kieffer in his report singles Swimmer out as a potential problem. "Mr. Ross Swimmer may be a very experienced manager with a considerable history in the BIA as Assistant Secretary," he writes. "He may have been a tribal chief and a bank president."

"But repeated inquiries by the court monitor about his trust experience have not received any response that he has ever been educated in or performed any trust fiduciary operations to the extent required to fulfill the role he has now been given," he continues.

The conclusion? "This Shakespearean tragedy has no end."

Related Documents:
Seventh Report of the Court Monitor (5/2) | 9th Status Report to the Court (5/1)

Today on Indianz.Com:
Court report documents trust reform feud (5/3)

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

Related Stories:
Bush administration bets on accounting (3/18)
Interior considering a limited trust fund (3/15)
Tribes seek funding commitment from Norton (3/7)
NCAI's Hall to press Interior on transition funding (3/6)
Norton in full damage control mode (3/4)
Interior won't detail 'transition' costs (3/4)
Swimmer legacy still haunts BIA (2/12)
Congress urged to act on failed trust reform (2/11)
Under watch of Swimmer, TAAMS halted (1/18)
Norton signs trust reform update (1/17)
Reagan's Indian chief is back (11/20)
Swimmer tapped by Bush administration (11/19)