Memo: Trust reform project needs extra attention
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APRIL 11, 2001

The Bureau of Indian Affairs' top computer systems expert wants a critical component of trust reform to get special attention because it has proven to be more of a problem than previously thought, according to a document made public on Tuesday.

In a February 23 memo, Chief Information Officer Dom Nessi asked Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell to act "as soon as possible" on his request to dedicate a full-time manager to oversee the cleanup of more than one hundred years of trust fund data. Otherwise, reform will see even more delays, he said.

Currently, data cleanup is part of a project known as TAAMS, or Trust Assets and Accounting Management System. The project was previously managed by Nessi but is now under the direction of Chester Mills.

TAAMS is touted as the Department of Interior's solution to the financial mismanagement of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts held by an estimated 300,00 American Indians throughout the country. Based on a commercially available software product, the system is designed to bring the BIA's technology up to date.

But due to a number of problems, TAAMS has faced setbacks, most notably the sub-project Nessi wants moved away from Mills. Since various Bureau agency and tribes over the years have developed their own method of trust accounting -- in some cases only keeping written records dating to the 1880s -- the disparate data has to conform to one standard before TAAMS can actually work.

The process of converting this "legacy" data is known as cleanup. In his memo, Nessi says it has "proven to be a far greater challenge than anyone previously considered."

In testimony to Congress last month, Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, the Interior official financially responsible for trust funds, defended the TAAMS project and said it will indeed work despite numerous criticisms, including many from Nessi. But he had to clarify for seemingly befuddled lawmakers that successful operation of TAAMS depends on data cleanup.

Despite his explanation, some weren't convinced the Interior will meet its goals for the TAAMS project. While the software system itself will be completed by 2003, they wondered why it won't be fully operational with accurate data until 2005.

"This doesn't sound good to me," said Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) at the time. "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."

On Monday, Slonaker told Indianz.Com that development of TAAMS software is ongoing and the Interior is well on its way to meeting a summer deadline for testing a brand new component at the Billings, Montana, agency.

Deputy Commissioner Blackwell was unavailable for comment on the memo. Nessi told her that his suggestion was in no way related to the abilities of Mills nor his handling of the TAAMS project.

The fiscal year 2002 budget released by Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Monday requests about $165 million for trust reform at the BIA and the Office of the Special Trustee (OST).

Get the Memo:
Memorandum: Nessi wants data cleanup to get its own manager (2/23)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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

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