BIA Memo: Trust reform out of control
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MARCH 16, 2001

Despite assurances from Secretary of Interior Gale Norton that her department is making progress on trust reform, the project is slowly collapsing and might need to be scrapped for a better one, according to documents released by the government on Thursday.

Personality conflicts, lack of trust, a need for proper management, and the ongoing Cobell v. Norton litigation are threatening the reform project, wrote Bureau of Indian Affairs Chief Information Officer Dominic Nessi on February 23. Just the day before, Norton told tribal leaders that "much progress" had been made in fixing the historically mismanaged system.

According to Nessi, however, the nearly three-year old plan guiding the project was "built on wishful thinking and rosy projections." What's more, he said, is that the primary reason for its development was not providing an estimated 300,000 American Indian with a proper accounting of their funds but instead mere "posturing" for Royce Lamberth, the federal judge overseeing trust reform, and other Department of Interior agencies.

"As a rule, I try not to make dire projections, but I am afraid in this case, I have no choice," wrote Nessi to Tom Slonaker, the Interior official financially responsible for trust accounts. "I believe that trust reform is slowly, but surely imploding at this point in time."

Known as the High Level Implementation Plan (HLIP), the Interior in 1998 first developed the plan to which Nessi refers in order to comply with a 1994 Congressional mandate to fix the broken system. The HLIP lays out a number of sub-projects -- one of which Nessi formerly managed -- aimed at doing just that.

Yet while Nessi's criticisms of the plan as filled with "impossible expectations" might be shocking to some, they are not new. In an April 1999 report, the General Accounting Office said the Interior "does not have reasonable assurance that its High-Level Plan for improving Indian trust operations provides an effective solution for addressing long-standing management weaknesses."

Additionally, the report acknowledged the Interior identified where improvements were needed but had "not properly analyzed its information technology needs which are essential to the overall success of the plan."

Nearly two years after the report, Nessi's concerns are being used not by the plaintiffs in the billion dollar trust fund case but by the government. In a court motion filed yesterday, the Department of Justice provided the memo to Lamberth in hopes of convincing him that the government needs more time to respond to issues raised by the plaintiffs.

The Department of Justice also said Norton and her staff need more time to become familiar with the case. But lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker, said there was "no excuse" for Norton not getting up to speed.

"Every judge is our side, Congress is on our side and yet you have the administration still dragging their feet," said Cobell. "If the Secretary is not willing to put all of her full faith and good will in getting this settled, she'll be looking at contempt of court."

Get Nessi's Memo and other Court Documents:
Fax from Department of Justice to Cobell plaintiffs (3/15)

Get the GAO Report:
Indian Trust Funds - Interior Lacks Assurance That Trust Improvement Plan Will Be Effective (GAO AIMD-99-53. 04/28/1999)

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA -
Office of Special Trustee -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

Only on Indianz.Com:
The Trust Fund Fiasco (Smoke Signals 1999)

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