FROM THE ARCHIVE

Former bureau chief gets second chance

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TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 20, 2001

Hoping to complete a number of initiatives he began more than a decade ago, former Assistant Secretary Ross O. Swimmer on Monday welcomed the opportunity to oversee the Bush administration's already controversial reorganization of the agency he once led.

Arguing that the overhaul will "increase" the voice of Indian Country, Swimmer said he was looking forward to leading a successful "transition" of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's proposal to create a Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management to handle $3.1 billion in oil, gas, timber and other assets on 54 million acres of tribal and individual Indian-owned land is a concept that will serve Indian Country in the "long term," he said.

"I think the division that will be set up to handle trust fund and asset management will work to the betterment of Indian people and the tribes," he said in an interview.

Although not officially named to head the effort as the Interior yesterday afternoon delayed the announcement, Swimmer all but accepted a new roost back at his old digs at the department. "I would certainly like to see this effort go forward," he said.

Like other top officials, however, Swimmer acknowledged his duties are not yet clear. But a significant part will be diffusing the tensions that have developed among tribal leaders who have denounced the plan and criticized Norton for offering it without first consulting them.

Along these lines, former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, who stepped down from the post in January, said Swimmer will be an asset to the Bush administration. Swimmer's experience and credentials would help bring Indian Country on board, said Gover.

"Ross is extremely capable," said Gover yesterday. "That's the only guy I can think of that's even worth considering."

"God bless him if he's willing to give it a try," he added.

But it is precisely Swimmer's second chance and his ties to the energy industry -- he has brokered power plant deals between tribes and companies -- that have raised red flags. Like current Assistant Secretary and fellow Oklahoman Neal McCaleb, Swimmer sat on former President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Indian Reservation Economies.

Swimmer, who chaired the commission along with an energy executive, ran into problems when his group made a number of controversial recommendations, including one to dismantle the BIA and replace it with an "trust services administration," a concept remarkably similar to the one Norton has proposed that one might think Swimmer had a hand in creating it. Yesterday, he said he couldn't recall exactly.

"I can't remember specifically," he said of a recommendation that tribal leaders overwhelmingly rejected. "I know that we looked into this issue and actually there is some logic to it."

Dennis Gingold, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing more than 300,000 American Indians in a class action lawsuit against the government, didn't have trouble remembering Swimmer's agenda of trying to hand out trust responsibilities to private enterprises. Having served as Reagan's assistant secretary for three years, Swimmer is the reason the trust fund is in a mess today, charged Gingold.

"He was part of the problem," Gingold said of Swimmer. "He was assistant secretary when the trust was in all kinds of difficulties. He was assistant secretary when none of the oil wells had any meters on them."

Swimmer's appointment by the Bush administration "demonstrates how ill-conceived" the new bureau is, added Gingold. Swimmer would only "further exacerbate the problems of the individual Indian trust," he said.

Swimmer said the new agency is exactly what the federal judge overseeing Gingold's lawsuit and Indian Country want to see. But he also said he had a personal interest in helping the transition take place.

"I had begun a process 13 years ago" to revamp the system, he said. "We didn't get far because we didn't have time."

Just how much time the new plan will take is unknown. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who has scheduled a status hearing next week, has already criticized the government for delaying the case by firing its old lawyers and putting a new defense team on the class action case.

But even though Norton hasn't laid out any timetables for the transition, Swimmer insisted the new plan won't test the patience of Lamberth or tribal leaders. "I think that this can be done in a timely manner, but it's not going to be done overnight."

"But whether it started today or it started six years ago, there has to be a methodology and a plan," he said.

"And you have to stick to it."

Swimmer ran the BIA from 1985 to 1988, after serving as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. He is currently an attorney in private practice in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Campbell supports BIA overhaul for now (11/20)
McCaleb faces Indian preference question (11/20)

Only on Indianz.Com:
Reagan returns with new administration (4/18)

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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