Norton pushes trust fund progress
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Hoping to take credit for a number of undertakings which have yet to bear fruit, the Department of Interior last week filed court papers to claim progress is being made on fixing the broken trust fund system.

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has assigned her trustee powers to improve management of trust reform, her attorneys wrote in an August 23 filing. Saying her department takes "very seriously" allegations of misconduct, her top legal official has requested an internal probe into his staff and managers at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they pointed out.

Yet while Interior officials won't say if, or how, Special Trustee Tom Slonaker has yielded his authority and admit that Solicitor Bill Myers' call for an investigation may never take place, government attorneys nonetheless push the Bush administration's actions as positive steps in correcting more than 100 years of financial mismanagement.

"Interior acknowledges that additional oversight and management are required to ensure the success of trust reform," said Norton's attorneys. "The Department has taken concrete steps to address that need."

Written in response to a 150-page report court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer issued earlier this month, the short filing is in stark contrast to the highly critical document, his second as court monitor. Kieffer slammed the government for purposely and repeatedly holding back the true status of a floundering $40 million software system touted as a key part of trust reform.

The filing is also markedly less contentious than an August 10 document Norton's attorneys submitted in response to Kieffer's first report. The Interior took issue with a number of Kieffer's findings, challenging his suggestion that Norton has delayed providing an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country with an accounting of the funds they are owed.

Still, both responses praised Norton for actions she has taken in recent months. In July, she signed two secretarial orders aimed at "streamlining" a three-year-old project hatched by the Clinton administration, of which Slonaker is a holdover.

Along with Slonaker's expanded oversight, the government is paying EDS Corporation nearly $1 million to address management shortcomings. Kieffer's reports have uncovered a number of problems in communication at all levels of the Interior -- issues top-level officials readily admit need correcting.

Norton has also created the Office of Historical Trust Fund Accounting, headed by a Bert T. Edwards, a former Clinton official from the State Department. Edwards is charged with creating a plan to carry out a "long overdue" accounting of the funds owed to Indian beneficiaries.

So far, Edwards has held two "listening sessions" to determine how to do his job. Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb told Indianz.Com the first meeting, held in Washington, DC, was not entirely productive but that the second, which took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was "very substantive."

Norton has created another position on trust reform, said her attorneys. As the new Executive Director for Trust Systems and Projects, Donna Erwin will look at the much-delayed and often-questioned software system known as the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS).

Erwin is the former project manager of yet another trust reform project, called the Trust Fund Accounting System (TFAS). The system contains the accounts balances of not just individual Indian beneficiaries but tribes as well -- some $3.1 billion in total funds.

The department at the end of this week will issue another court-mandated quarterly update on trust reform. Kieffer has criticized Interior attorneys and management for editing out more truthful comments about the status of TAAMS.

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

Related Stories:
Norton challenges trust fund monitor (8/23)
Internal trust fund investigation sought (8/22)
Court report criticizes trust fund software (8/10)
Trust fund holders want trial against Bush officials (8/7)
Court monitor sets sights on software system (8/1)
Interior cited for destroyed e-mails (7/30)
Norton slammed by trust fund monitor (7/12)