Trust fund software in 'hostage' situation
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Despite knowing about problems affecting the development of a $40 million computer system, the Bush administration has yet to come up with a contingency plan to prevent a critical piece of the trust fund fix from blossoming into a full-blown disaster.

Already hindered by numerous delays due to software bugs, implementation problems and corruption issues, the Trust Assets Accounting and Management System (TAAMS) has been the subject of wide debate since its inception in the summer of 1999. The system is designed to bring trust accounting into the 21st century and is supposed to replace outmoded policies at Bureau of Indian Affairs offices throughout the country.

As such, it is a key part of the attempt to correct more than one hundred years of financial mismanagement of the Indian trust. Yet the government has all but handed over full control and ownership of the fledgling system to a third-party contractor.

The result, as one senior Interior official put it, is that the government is being "held hostage" by the Texas company, known as Artesia Systems Group.

"The government does not own the code," said the official. "It does make for problems downstream."

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton was warned about the reliance on the company over the summer, when she began taking a closer look at trust reform. While she has moved on a number of fronts -- including her decision to scrap a controversial statistical sampling project -- she has failed to develop a backup plan for TAAMS, officials acknowledged.

That leaves the government open to numerous problems, they said. Although there is no indication Artesia is unhappy with the way TAAMS is going -- the company gets paid despite failures -- officials worry the Interior will be left in shambles should the firm walk away from the project.

Such a move would leave the BIA with an incomplete system that it could not modify, since it neither has the expertise nor the underlying TAAMS code and logic. It could also mean the government has to start a new system from scratch.

While the notion sounds like the worst possible outcome, the plaintiffs in the billion dollar class action suit against the government say the system is already in such bad shape that it doesn't work anyway. They want a federal judge to appoint a receiver, or outside caretaker, to make sure Norton doesn't inflict any more damage on the assets of an estimated 300,000 American Indian account holders.

At the same time, they are also seeking to have a court investigator take over the Interior's computer network, on which TAAMS is supposed to find a home. During a special hearing being held tomorrow, Dennis Gingold, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he will ask U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to put special master Alan Balaran in charge.

"We have no confidence in what the Interior is doing," said Gingold.

For now, TAAMS is being overseen by Donna Erwin, a career Interior employee. She is in charge of TAAMS and a closely-linked project known as data cleanup.

Both projects were slammed in two reports by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, who is under consideration as the IIM receiver. He said TAAMS and cleanup are so far behind schedule that it may take decades for a system to be fully operational.

According to a recent count, as many as 25 BIA employees were working on TAAMS.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Interior schedules first consultation (11/27)
Interior cutting off tribal comments (11/27)
BIA collecting Indian preference info (11/27)

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

Related TAAMS / Computer Stories:
Judge holds secret hearing (11/23)
Trust fund security document filed (11/14)
Norton hit on trust fund progress (9/18)
Court report criticizes trust fund software (8/10)
Court monitor sets sights on software system (8/1)
Retaliation charged as BIA official jumps ship (7/25)
Latest trust fund system a 'failure' (7/11)
Interior holding back security reports (6/29)
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)