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Johnson promises 'meaningful' investigation of OST

A wide-ranging investigation of the Office of Special Trustee is moving forward, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said last week.

Johnson asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to look into the "entire management and administrative system" of the agency Congress created to address failures in trust mismanagement. He made the request in a May 3 letter.

During a conference call last Thursday, Johnson said the GAO has accepted the request and will be providing a briefing to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, of which he is a member. To make the investigation more manageable, it is being broken into separate areas, including financial management, information technology and staffing, he said.

"It's our hope that by breaking up our request into some smaller packages, -- with a greater focus on specific issues -- that we can get a more meaningful investigation by the GAO," Johnson said.

The investigation centers on a number of concerns tribal leaders have raised in recent years as OST has expanded its mission from one designed to oversee trust reform efforts at the Interior Department to one implementing most major fixes. Under Bush administration, the agency's budget has dramatically increased while funds for other Indian programs are being cut or flat-lined.

Congress has responded, in part, by restricting OST's growth. Just last week, the House passed an Interior appropriations bill that strips money from OST and funnels it to Indian schools and hospitals instead.

Special Trustee Ross Swimmer, a Bush administration appointee, has contested the characterization that his office is becoming a major bureaucracy. In response to complaints aired by tribes at a Senate hearing in March, he said that most of the money going into OST is being used for historical accounting projects.

But even that pot of funds is being viewed with skepticism. The bill that passed the House last week cuts the Bush administration's historical accounting request by $51.4 million. Funding for the Office of Historical Trust Accounting is capped at $58 million in the bill.

In his letter to GAO, Johnson questioned why OST keeps receiving more money despite having "carryover" funds every year. He said the agency's management of its funds "gives rise to suspicious activity of impropriety."

Independent audits also outline discrepancies in the way OST handles $3.1 billion in Indian trust funds. One audit showed that OST is holding back at least $121 million, up from $62 million previously reported, from individual Indians.

Congress created OST in 1994 to provide oversight of the BIA's trust management duties. The agency stumbled in its first few years under the Clinton administration -- former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt initially refused to fund the office and the first Special Trustee resigned in a dispute with Babbitt.

During the Bush administration, the agency has seen unprecedented growth and has slowly taken over programs formerly managed by BIA, including cash management, appraisals, probate and accounting. Tribal leaders and some lawmakers say this expansion violates the intent of Congress in creating the office.

Get the Letter:
Johnson Request for OST Investigation (May 3, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Office of Special Trustee -