Trust fund investigation continues
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MARCH 9, 2001

The court-appointed special master in the billion dollar trust fund lawsuit on Thursday informed the government of his plans to interview a top Bureau of Indian Affairs official who assigned an employee to home duty where she has remained for a year.

But the subject of the proposed investigation isn't Mona Infield, a BIA computer analyst who continues to draw an $80,000 annual salary from the comforts of her Albuquerque, New Mexico, home. Instead, Alan Balaran is seeking to interview Dominic Nessi, under oath, about efforts to preserve the records of an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country.

Nessi is the BIA's first chief information officer, charged with modernizing the agency's outdated computer systems. It is a monumental task for Nessi, who in the past has been vocally critical of Congress for not providing the Department of Interior with enough money to help bring the heavily burdened BIA into the 20th century.

Yet putting Nessi before the special master where his testimony would probably catch the eyes of lawmakers eager to find a solution to what Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo) last week called a "national disgrace" is exactly what the government doesn't want. In a court motion filed last month, the Department of Justice asked Judge Royce Lamberth to prevent Nessi from providing testimony on any aspects of the trust fund debacle.

And in its court-mandated quarterly status report, the Interior last week lamented about top officials and senior management being distracted from their duties by the five-year-old Cobell v. Norton lawsuit. In particular, the Interior said Balaran's investigation was hindering trust reform progress.

Under pressure from Congress and the courts, its understandable that the government wants to keep people like Nessi in the field working instead of in the courtroom testifying. Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, however, sees it differently.

"Its been one huge cover-up," she asserted.

Whether or not Balaran's planned interview of Nessi will reveal a cover-up is uncertain. For almost a year, Balaran has been keeping track of the BIA's move of the national trust records center from New Mexico to suburban Washington, DC.

During the move, workers in Albuquerque discovered some computer tapes labeled as related to the BIA's trust fund accounts. A number of them were unreadable and the BIA in May 2000 promised to try and recover the information stored on them.

But in January, the government admitted it was behind schedule and couldn't provide Balaran with a status update until the end of this month. Apparently hoping to get a jump on the update, Balaran has asked to interview Nessi as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Nessi is one of several BIA employees whom Cobell and the other plaintiffs have targeted for conspiring to retaliate against Infield. Judge Lamberth has yet to decide if he will hold a contempt of court hearing addressing those claims.

Find out more about the unreadable tapes:
Intention to Interview of Nessi, Under Oath [PDF 332k] (Balaran to Phillip Brooks March 8, 2001)

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Babbitt -

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

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