Interior delaying trust reform report
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The Department of Interior is seeking to delay a court-mandated report on trust reform, casting doubt on claims of progress made by Secretary Gale Norton in recent months.

In a court motion filed just days before the report was due, government attorneys asked US District Judge Royce Lamberth for a month-long extension. The report would cover the months of May, June and July -- a critical time period for the Bush administration's handling of the trust fund debacle.

According to the court filing, Special Trustee Tom Slonaker has objected to the contents of the latest report. Government attorneys claim Slonaker "is not satisfied with the completeness or the quality of information provided" in the report.

Due to the objections, the government says it needs more time to review the report. By the end of this week, Slonaker is to outline his concerns.

The request for the delay comes as a court monitor has criticized the Interior on a number of fronts. In July, Joseph S. Kieffer III slammed Norton for approving a statistical sampling plan hatched by the previous administration only to delay its duties to American Indians.

A month later, Kieffer blasted a $40 million software system designed to modernize years of inefficient trust fund policies. The Interior has hid the problems of the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System, or TAAMS, from court from the inception of the project two years ago, he charged.

The status report now past due would cover a time period central to the two issues. During the summer, Norton decided to drop the sampling plan in favor of a broader approach.

The summer also saw more failures to the TAAMS project. An already delayed central to the system failed and will push back the system by up to a year, Interior officials acknowledged.

Despite the problems, Norton has claimed progress. She has authorized Slonaker to take a more direct role in trust reform, including the assignment of a nearly $1 million contract aimed at fettering out management problems at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

It is the results of that ongoing contract -- awarded to EDS Corporation -- that are part of Slonaker's delay, government attorneys say.

Norton has also created a new office designed to come up with a plan to provide an historical accounting to an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country. Although the government has been required by law -- and told by Lamberth -- to conduct the accounting, nothing has been done for more than two years.

The acknowledgment of Slonaker's objections, however, indicates the government may be paying attention to Kieffer. Kieffer has criticized attorneys and senior management at the Interior for editing out Slonaker's comments that would have provided a more accurate picture of trust reform.

The plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit are objecting to the delay. In court papers, the plaintiffs say the government has repeatedly lied to the court.

"There is no likelihood that reported information will be materially less inaccurate and materially less incomplete than it is today," the plaintiffs wrote. "Moreover, there is no reason to believe that defendants and their counsel will begin to tell the whole truth to this Court."

Department of Interior officials yesterday said they had not actually seen their own court filing and could not comment directly on it. But they said the delay, which has not been granted as of yesterday, would not affect future reports.

As part of his landmark December 1999 ruling, Lamberth ordered the government to file quarterly reports on trust reform.

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

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