FROM THE ARCHIVE

Key trust reform player leaving BIA

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THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 2002


RETIRING: Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb at National Congress of American Indians. Photo © NSM.
A senior Bureau of Indian Affairs official who has played a central role in the dispute over fixing the Indian trust fund is leaving her post, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb announced on Wednesday.

McCaleb told tribal leaders in Washington, D.C., that Deputy Commissioner for Indian Affairs Sharon Blackwell will retire this summer. Calling her "his good right hand," he was clearly disappointed with the pending departure.

"My heart is a little heavy this morning," McCaleb told a gathering of the National Congress of American Indians.

McCaleb gave no reason for the decision and Blackwell, in a short interview following the announcement, declined to comment in detail. An internal BIA e-mail she sent to employees and staff only stated she was retiring from the federal government, where -- as the highest ranking Indian woman in the Department of Interior -- she has had a long career as an attorney and key decision-maker on water rights, natural resources and trust assets.

In recent months, however, she has come under fire for her part in correcting more than a century of mismanagement of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Appointed to her post by then-Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, Blackwell placed a top priority on trust reform.

But disputes between the BIA and the Interior office charged with oversight of reform have hindered the effort so dramatically that a federal judge is considering sanctioning the department's top officials. Blackwell herself has been named as a potential party to contempt proceedings for what court documents have termed as providing misleading reports to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth.

According to court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer, Blackwell's battles with the Office of the Special Trustee (OST) prevented truthful information from being provided to the court and the more than 300,000 Indian beneficiaries whose $500 million in annual assets are at stake. Among other senior officials, she was cited for editing and removing comments made by Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, a presidential appointee.

Yet the public face she and Slonaker displayed at the time was anything but contentious. Almost a year ago, the pair went before an angry House committee and assured lawmakers that efforts to fix the fund were not, as another departed official claimed, "slowly but surely imploding."

Beyond the reports, Blackwell's hands in a $40 million trust accounting package now accepted by the department as inadequate if not a total failure have surfaced. Slonaker's office questioned how Blackwell and the BIA managed the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), accusing project managers of resisting oversight.

The dispute grew so heated that a court reporter was brought into record every detail of a February 2001 meeting involving Blackwell, members of the OST and the third-party contractor handling TAAMS. It was a highly unusual move but documents the debate.

"[I]t apparently comes down to something as simple as perhaps the difference in philosophy between BIA" and OST, said Blackwell.

"I don't think it's a difference in philosophy," responded Tommy Thompson, the senior aide to Slonaker. "I think it might be a difference in how to process work."

Whether it was philosophy or management, the differences led Slonaker to seek more authority over the BIA. He has exercised his power just once, stripping the bureau of its land appraising program -- a move initially opposed by Blackwell and McCaleb, who told Indianz.Com it was "tough" to hand over the reins.

Blackwell's retirement marks the second exit of a senior bureau official since the Bush administration took over Amid growing complaints and an investigation into information technology security, former TAAMS project manager Dom Nessi suddenly joined the National Park Service in late July.

In an interview yesterday, Gover said he had "mixed feelings" over Blackwell's retirement. "I'm glad she's out of the pressure cooker," he said.

Gover defended Blackwell from charges she misled the court and said he didn't believe the debacle played a role in her decision to leave. He also praised her challenges to Slonaker.

"If she was in there fighting," he said, "it's just that she believes in it."

Blackwell said she will leave the first week in June.

Related Stories:
Sharon Blackwell leaving BIA (2/27)
Interior infighting hampering trust fund fix (9/20)
Interior takes lawyers off trust fund (9/14)
Norton hit on trust fund progress (9/18)
Norton pushes trust fund progress (8/27)
Norton challenges trust fund monitor (8/23)
Court report criticizes trust fund software (8/10)
Court monitor sets sights on software system (8/1)
Retaliation charged as BIA official jumps ship (7/25)
Norton slammed by trust fund monitor (7/12)
Memo: Trust reform project needs extra attention (4/11)
BIA official: Organization was in 'disarray' (4/5)
Interior: Trust reform is working (3/22)
'Emergency' trust fund meeting requested (3/21)
BIA Memo: Trust reform out of control (3/16)