McCaleb opposes changes in trust management
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JUNE 18, 2001

The Department of Interior is considering ridding the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its trust management duties, an action being opposed on a number of fronts -- most notably by Bureau of Indian Affairs nominee Neal McCaleb.

By taking power away from the BIA, the Interior would place trust fund management solely in the hands of the Office of the Special Trustee (OST). Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, a political appointee who reports directly to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, would be the only top-level official in charge of what has become one of the government's biggest embarrassments.

But in Senate testimony last week, the Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation resisted such a move. During his confirmation hearing before the Indian Affairs Committee, McCaleb argued it would effectively strip the agency of the very job it is entrusted by law to do.

"The trust functions overall are so all-inclusive within the Bureau that you're really not transferring a single function," said McCaleb. "You're transferring trust responsibility to some other agency."

"It goes right down to the root jobs at the BIA," he added, noting that removing trust responsibility is akin to "suggesting elimination of the BIA."

McCaleb's position on the issue is similar to his take on federal recognition. Instead of drawing resources away from the BIA, he said, problems need to be identified and fixed.

Unlike the tribal acknowledgment process, though, a considerably larger number of jobs and federal funding are at risk when it comes to trust funds management. For fiscal year 2002, the Bush administration has requested $118.4 million -- an increase of $12 million over 2001 -- for trust-related services at the BIA.

Some of the funding goes to the BIA's day-to-day operations. According to BIA Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell, 12 regional offices and more than 87 field offices carry out trust management duties.

But a significant amount -- $73 million -- is dedicated to fixing the trust accounting system. Yet it is in this area that the BIA has run into its biggest problems, particularly with a computer system which is touted as an automated, state-of-the-art solution to more than one hundred years of mismanagement.

The troubles with the BIA's attempt to fix the system -- which one official recently described as "imploding" -- make it an area ripe for consolidation with the OST. Slonaker's job is, in fact, to oversee and coordinate trust reform.

To Elouise Cobell, however, neither the BIA nor the OST can be trusted to handle the accounts of an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country. Cobell is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit which has forced the government to make changes in its accounting.

"I haven't seen any proof that either one has the capabilities to enforce the trust," said Cobell.

Should the Interior decide to reorganize its trust management functions, Secretary Norton would have to issue a departmental order. The 2002 budget request for the OST is $110.2 million.

In total, the Interior is responsible for 1,400 tribal accounts representing $2.7 billion in funds. The accounts held for individual American Indians are worth about $400 million.

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

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