Court report criticizes trust fund software
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Department of Interior officials have repeatedly and purposely failed to notify a federal judge that a $40 million software system designed to track the trust assets of American Indians and tribes has serious deficiencies, charged a court investigator in a report released on Thursday.

For the past two years, the government has hid the problems of the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System, or TAAMS, from US District Judge Royce Lamberth, said court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III. Court-mandated quarterly reports authored by the Interior have been "misleading regarding the true status of the TAAMS project" even though officials knew the system failed critical tests as far back as the summer of 1999.

Yet when Tom Slonaker, who began his position as overseer of trust reform last summer after being appointed by former President Clinton, attempted to provide more accurate updates about TAAMS, top officials at the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs opposed his apparent candor.

The Interior's Office of the Solicitor, then headed by Clinton appointee John Leshy, and BIA managers, including Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell, have removed Slonaker's comments from the reports, said Kieffer. Blackwell herself has only been on the job a little over a year.

"Every effort has been made to show progress and positive events and suppress negative results when in actuality the system was repeatedly failing in major areas that clearly would set back trust reform by many months if not years," said Kieffer.

Kieffer's revelations, contained in an explosive 130-page report, are the latest in a series of criticisms the government has received over trust reform. In a July report, he slammed both the Clinton and Bush administrations for stone-walling on a court-ordered historical accounting of the funds owed to an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country.

But while top Interior officials were aware of, and anticipated, Kieffer's findings on TAAMS, they have attempted to downplay their significance. BIA employees are happy with the new computer system, even if it doesn't work completely, and are eager to see it fixed, even if it takes three or four more years, they said.

They are, however, acknowledging recent failures which have added up to one year of delay to TAAMS. In June, a new, critical part of the system did not pass the required tests and the government is working with outside contractor Artesia System Group to correct the bugs, they said.

Officials also admit the BIA needs help in making sure trust reform is executed properly. The government is paying EDS Corporation, a management consulting firm, nearly $1 million to help BIA managers, including TAAMS project leader Chet Mills, do their job.

Still, Kieffer's report adds more fuel to claims of the Cobell v. Norton plaintiffs that top officials should be held in contempt-of-court. In various filings, the plaintiffs, led by Blackfeet banker Elouise Cobell, have asked Lamberth to consider holding Secretary Gale Norton, Blackwell, and former and past Interior officials in contempt.

In February 1999, Lamberth previously held then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover in contempt.

An Interior spokesperson yesterday said the department is still reviewing Kieffer's report. The department is "committed to improving trust reform for the good of Indian Country," said Nedra Darling, who pointed out that Norton has created a new Office of Historical Trust Accounting to try and provide Indian beneficiaries with a report of their funds.

Norton and new Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb are in New Mexico today to visit the Office of Trust Records in Albuquerque to better understand how trust duties are carried out. The office, which is overseen by Slonaker, is currently being investigated by the special master in the Cobell v. Norton case on charges trust documents are not being properly handled.

Next week, Bert T. Edwards, the director of Norton's new office, will begin holding meetings to discuss an accounting. Edwards is a former State Department official from the Clinton years.

In his report, Kieffer makes note of Norton's new trust initiatives, which include the hiring of EDS. But he warns that her department needs to acknowledge the past problems of trust reform.

Along those lines, Kieffer is recommending Norton take some sort of action against the BIA and Solicitor employees. "They have created the record of opposition to and actions against the provision of open and honest communications to this Court and Congress on trust reform both in the past and the present administrations," he said.

Since its inception, TAAMS has seen six project managers. The first, Dom Nessi, who was recruited by Gover, has since quit the BIA and taken up a position as Chief Information Officer at the National Park Service.

In February, Nessi wrote a confidential memo to Slonaker charging that "trust reform is slowly, but surely imploding."

Get the Report:

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

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Latest trust fund system a 'failure' (7/11)
Interior holding back security reports (6/29)
Action threatened against Interior (6/25)
Memo: Trust reform project needs extra attention (4/11)
BIA official: Organization was in 'disarray' (4/5)
Interior: Trust reform is working (3/22)
'Emergency' trust fund meeting requested (3/21)
BIA Memo: Trust reform out of control (3/16)