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© 2001 Indian Country Tomorrow
MIT Students Fix Trust Fund System
SUNDAY, APRIL 1, 2001

trust fund
Tired, but playful: MIT Student Kay Cheng '01 fixes trust fund system.
CAMBRIDGE, MA -- The system has proved a major burden for the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but more than one hundred years of historical mismanagement were but tiny obstacles to a team of five Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, who early this morning announced they had reconciled an estimated 500,000 Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust fund accounts.

"It was a lot of hard work," a bushy-eyed and weary Kay Cheng '01 told Indian Country Tomorrow, "but we did it. And now we have a full and accurate accounting of the money owed to hundreds of thousands of American Indians throughout the country."

Along with fellow computer science majors James Wong '02 and Minh Quan-Le '02 and financial management students Jack Feegle '01 and Jennifer '03 Chu, Cheng at dawn emerged from a computer lab on the school's campus with a "clean and elegant" solution to a problem which has plagued everyone from former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt to Attorney General John Ashcroft. Armed with an Excel spreadsheet and a Powerpoint presentation describing the efforts, they explained to Indian Country Tomorrow how they fixed the system in just two days.

"It was simple, really," proclaimed Cheng as she sipped an espresso spiked with chocolate. "First, we used Yahoo's People Finder and numerous pow-wow pages on the Internet to locate current addresses for the accounts the Interior mysteriously hasn't been able to update. We did that on Friday night after we watched The Lone Gunmen in my dorm room."

Two cases of Jolt Cola later, the group then re-wrote the entire Trust Fund Asset and Account Management System (TAAMS) using "a standard Excel spreadsheet," piped in Quan-Le. "We don't understand why [former project manager] Dom Nessi didn't figure this out earlier but TAAMS can be implemented with just three Excel macros."

By this time, it was early Saturday morning and the group took a break to watch some reruns of Xena, Warrior Princess. After a couple of pizzas, they got back to work and held a tele-conference with Mona Infield, the BIA employee who was reprimanded for criticizing the government's attempts to fix the system. Within a few hours, the group was able to clean up more than one hundred years of bad trust fund data using some C code and Cobol, Infield's specialty.

"I'm so glad I finally met people who can work at my GS-14 employee level," Infield told Indian Country Tomorrow in an e-mail interview. "Had the BIA not retaliated against me, we could have fixed the trust fund system ages ago instead of having me sit at home this past year doing nothing."

trust fund
"My Tigger stuffed animals helped us focus," says Cheng, joined by James Wong '02.
But the group still had other projects to finish, as defined by their own High-Level Implementation Plan (HLIP). Feegle and Chu were worried they wouldn't be able to reduce the probate backlog since they had no experience in the matter. Spurred on by an episode of Night Court, however, they remembered the Cambridge City Court was open 24 hours a day and had Judge Marcus Gray adjudicate 10,000 cases in just six hours, thus reducing 90 percent of the backlog.

All this time, the TAAMS algorithms were busy calculating the money owed to IIM account holders. "It looked shaky their for a while and we almost thought the system was slowly, but surely imploding. But we realized our plan wasn't built on rosy projections, so we knew it would succeed," said Wong.

And succeed, they did. Around 4am Eastern Standard Time, the group completed their task and made a shocking discovery: the entire system, they say, is worth less than a million dollars.

"The account holders are owed an average of 62 cents," said Wong. "The lead plaintiff in the trust fund lawsuit against the government, Elouise Cobell, has just 82 cents in her account."

Contacted at her Montana home, Cobell was nonetheless pleased with the students' effort. She said it didn't matter how much she and others are owed because most of the settlement money the government might have awarded them was headed towards the bank accounts of her lawyers, anyway.

"At least this way, I get to keep all 82 cents," Cobell told Indian Country Tomorrow in a telephone interview.

The students believe they'll be able to convince Special Trustee Tom Slonaker to scrap the BIA's system and use theirs. They also hope they can testify before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on their work but with mid-terms coming up, Cheng said they weren't sure if they could make it to Washington, DC, any time soon.

"We have priorities," said Cheng. "I have an important test scheduled and then there's the Dungeons and Dragons tournament but if Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) wants me to tell him why [Secretary] Gale Norton hasn't been able to do what we just did, I will."

© 2001 Indian Country Tomorrow