Interior: Trust reform is working
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MARCH 22, 2001

Amid pressure from his department, the courts, and the plaintiffs engaged in a billion dollar lawsuit against the federal government, the Department of Interior's top trust fund official on Wednesday assured members of Congress that his agency was well on its way to fixing the historically mismanaged system.

But even though Special Trustee Tom Slonaker admitted a controversial memo criticizing the government's progress contained a number of truthful revelations, he refused to concede the trust reform project needed to be changed. Despite recognized problems in management and other issues, he instead echoed the words of his boss, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, and said "substantial progress has been made."

Members of the House Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations, however, were clearly skeptical. They focused on the memo in which Dominic Nessi, who became the Bureau of Indian Affair's first Chief Information Officer last spring, told Slonaker the government's trust fund project was "slowly, but surely imploding."

"Up until last week, I thought we were making good progress," offered Representative Norm Dicks (Wash.), the committee's ranking Democrat who said he was "disturbed" by Nessi's recent admissions, particularly those regarding the Trust Assets and Accounting Management System.

Otherwise known as TAAMS, the system is touted as the government's solution to over 100 years of mismanaging the trust assets of an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country. Yet the system, formerly managed by Nessi, has suffered from a number of setbacks.

Along with BIA Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell, Slonaker acknowledged significant work needs to be completed before TAAMS is fully operational at all Bureau agencies. Blackwell also said some critical components of the project are still in the design phase, leaving Dicks to question why it won't be up and running until 2005.

"This doesn't sound good to me," said Dicks. "I'm not an expert on this but if its going to take you four additional years before you have the confidence in this system and you've got these other systems that haven't been integrated, it sounds to me like you're going to have problems."

"There's no reason for Congress to be very confident in this operation thus far," he added.

Slonaker and Blackwell tried to reassure Dicks and others and said the system itself will be finished by 2003. The need to correct years of poor record keeping and lack of management means the system won't provide an accurate accounting until the later date, they said.

"There's absolutely no reason why TAAMS can't work," said Slonaker.

Armed with reports documenting problems with TAAMS and the knowledge of a BIA computer specialist who was assigned to home duty after criticizing the system, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the five-year-old Cobell v. Norton lawsuit disagreed with Slonaker's assessment. After the hearing, Dennis Gingold said simply: "TAAMS is a failure."

Gingold agreed with Slonaker that the BIA needs better management but criticized Slonaker's refusal to admit the government's trust reform blueprint was inadequate. Slonaker said the nearly three-year-old document, known as the High-Level Implementation Plan (HLIP), was "pretty good" and told Chairman Joe Skeen (R-N.M) that it didn't deserve to be "overhauled."

"I'd say the problem is management, money, and the absence of a competent strategic plan," said Gingold. "But for whatever reason, the trust documents, the trust money, and the trust data are not treated the way the United States treats its own money."

"There's something wrong here."

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA -
Office of Special Trustee -
The House Committee on Appropriations -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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