Top trust reform official comes under fire
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TUESDAY, MAY 21, 2002

It was easy to see why it took Special Trustee Tom Slonaker a few days to respond to a memo asking him to cooperate with the Department of Interior's ongoing court battle over the Indian trust. After all, the last time Secretary Gale Norton sent him a letter, it was to blame him for failing to fix the broken system.

"Frankly, your performance to date does not justify an expansion of your responsibilities," Norton wrote in an April 17 rebuke. "Instead you should be focusing your efforts on strengthening your execution of tasks already assigned to you."

Given the tone of her recent dealings with him, Slonaker could have been fearful of added criticism. She even told a federal judge during her contempt trial that he wasn't exactly the team player she wanted.

Still, he had good reason to hold back, so he thought, having spent the past couple of weeks trying to figure out why their own attorneys kept information about the case hidden from them. "I have hesitated to respond to your faxed memo to me," he finally wrote on May 1, "because I believed the particular issue presented appeared to be resolved."

But his timing couldn't have been worse. That same day, Norton signed and shipped off her latest status update to a federal court, complete with a remark which stated he was "unwilling" to take responsibility for his job.

It looked like a set up.

Dereliction of Duties
But if it was, it would pale to an even harsher statement that would be made to the court a couple of weeks later. Objecting to a report which made public the feud involving Slonaker, Norton's defense team lodged a lengthy filing which made a rather curious argument.

As her attorneys demanded the report be rejected in its entirety, they made clear why Slonaker should still be doubted. "The Secretary has raised objectively reasonable and legitimate concerns about the performance, accountability, and leadership of the Special Trustee," they wrote on May 16.

"[T]he Special Trustee's performance in those areas in which he has been granted line authority has . . not inspired confidence," the attorneys continued.

It was a line of thinking that would pervade the nearly 50-page document. While defending government attorneys and even Ross Swimmer from perceived attacks, Norton's defense team freely sprinkled their complaint with liberal shots at Slonaker.

"[R]epeated assurances that the Special Trustee is the only official qualified to guide trust reform," they wrote, "are misguided."

"[T]he Special Trustee's performance," they charged, "has not inspired the Secretary's confidence . .. and the Secretary is not the only person who has noticed."

"Under the circumstances, the Secretary has good reason to conclude that it might be a dereliction of her professional obligation," they argued, "to expand the responsibilities of an individual who has not demonstrated that he is managing his current responsibilities in an accountable manner."

It couldn't get any worse than this.

Part III of 'Indian Trust: Conflicts of Interest' will follow.

Relevant Documents:
Slonaker: Moving Forward (4/8) | Slonaker: Tex Hall (4/9) | Norton: Moving Back (4/17) | Norton: A Significant Disservice (4/25) | Slonaker: Hesitation (5/1)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

Related Stories:
Indian Trust: Conflicts of interest (5/20)