Special Trustee Vince Logan reaches out to Indian Country

Vince Logan, the Special Trustee for American Indians. Photo from Native Legal Update

The leader of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians continues to reach out to Indian Country amid questions about the agency's future.

The agency that manages trust funds and oversees trust reform at the Interior Department went without a leader for five years. That changed when Special Trustee Vince Logan, a member of the Osage Nation, was confirmed to his post by the Senate in June 2014.

Since joining the Obama administration, Logan has been traveling across the country to talk to tribes and individual Indians. He continued those efforts at the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference last month.

“It was great to share the progress that the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians has made in all of its endeavors,” Logan said of his meeting there. “The chance for my staff to meet Indian Country leaders proved invaluable.”

In addition to meeting with stakeholders, Logan revived the Special Trustee Advisory Board after years of inaction. He's chosen nine members to help guide his agency's efforts to manage tribal and individual Indian trust funds, as well as carry out of some of the federal government's most important trust duties.

The Office of Special Trustee leases 76,000 square-feet of space in this office building at 1001 Indian School Rd NW in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Image from Google Maps

The new board will hold its first meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in two weeks. And Logan will be delivering the keynote at the National Intertribal Tax Alliance Conference in Niagara Falls, New York, in September.

“I’m look forward to being out in Indian Country. People are achieving great things there and we are making a lot of progress,” said Logan.

Congress created OST through the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994. One of the agency's primary goals was to monitor how the Bureau of Indian Affairs was handling its trust obligations.

But OST's scope expanded dramatically in recent years and the agency now has taken over several programs at the BIA. A lot of the growth came during the Bush administration and was accompanied by cuts in the BIA's budget over the objections of tribes and some members of Congress.

Tribes hoped that President Barack Obama would chart a new course for OST. In some respects, he has done that by requesting only modest increases for OST's budget while restoring funds to the BIA.

By settling the the Cobell trust fund lawsuit for $3.4 billion, the Obama administration also agreed to take a new look at its trust reform efforts. After two years of review, the National Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform -- a panel of tribal leaders and Indian law experts -- called on DOI to consider a "sunset" of OST and transfer its duties back to the BIA.

"Aside from the general nature of the trust responsibility, this is the area that received the most public attention," the commission's final report from December 2013 stated.

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But the Obama administration doesn't plan on going down that path. Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, said sunsetting the OST is not on the table.

"From our perspective here, there's nothing broken that needs to be fixed," Washburn said at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on July 8.

Logan, incidentally, was invited to the hearing and was placed on the witness list. But Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, said the Special Trustee backed out at the last minute.

Barrasso called Logan's absence "unacceptable" and wondered whether the OST has "outlived its purpose."

Vince Logan was removed from the witness list for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing. Photo by Andrew Bahl / Twitter

NCAI, whose leaders met with Logan on June 28 in St. Paul, Minnesota, agrees with that assessment. A resolution adopted last year spoke clearly about the issue.

The "creation of a bureaucracy within the Office of the Special Trustee to handle Indian trust assets has resulted in confusion and delays in processing trust transactions, with insufficient oversight by the beneficiary Tribal Nations and Tribal citizens," the resolution read.

It continued: "[T]here is no longer a need or reason to have the Office of the Special Trustee as an agency within the Department of Interior that is separate and distinct from the Bureau of Indian Affairs."

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