From BIA to BITAM to OST Swimmer lands on top
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Ross Swimmer admitted in a recent court deposition that the Bush administration promised to put him in charge of its failed proposal for a separate Indian trust agency.

A year to the day of his official return to the Department of Interior, Swimmer testified under oath that he was going to be named assistant secretary for Indian trust assets management. When asked who would head the new organization, known as BITAM, he simply responded: "I was."

But at the time of his November 2001 appointment by Secretary Gale Norton, Swimmer was instead given the title of Director of the Office of Indian Trust Transition (OITT). In an interview with Indianz.Com, he said he was looking forward to helping create the agency, not run it.

"If I can help during the transition, I will," he said.

Other department officials also refused to disclose the identity of the BITAM chief. In a meeting with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason said the Bush administration was going to appoint an "Indian" to the post.

Tribal leaders, however, always felt there was a hidden agenda. "That was part of the BITAM deal," NCAI President Tex Hall said of Swimmer's return to federal service. "I know the administration has a lot of regard for his expertise but that's not what the tribes feel."

The NCAI, which represents more than 200 tribes, subsequently passed a resolution opposing Swimmer, former chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. But the criticism didn't bother Norton, who defended her Indian aide repeatedly. At one point she said the trust wouldn't be in such shambles had Indian Country listened to him when he was in charge of the BIA during the last three years of the Reagan administration.

"Ross Swimmer proposed some changes when he was assistant secretary that, had they been adopted, we would not be in the mess we are in today," she told a packed House hearing in February 2002. Her testimony elicited loud boos and groans from the audience of tribal leaders. Four months later, she took BITAM off the table.

Despite the reservations, Swimmer took control over most trust reform efforts, stripping Neal McCaleb, the former BIA chief who resigned last month, of many of his duties. He is in charge of computer systems, probate of Indian property, verification of trust data and, at one point, he was assigned oversight of the historical accounting project for 500,000 trust fund accounts. He compiles quarterly court reports on the status of trust reform and was also the architect of the "reorganization-reengineering" reform plan the Interior submitted to a federal judge last week.

"I am the lead person to assemble the plan," he testified.

And earlier this month, President Bush appointed him Special Trustee for American Indians, a higher-level position than an assistant secretary. "He didn't get the BITAM trust job so now they appoint him as Special Trustee," said one tribal leader.

Swimmer will have to undergo a confirmation hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo) supports the nomination, The Denver Post reported last week.

Deposition Excerpts:
Ross Swimmer On BITAM (1/16)

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

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