Interior pushed to appoint own trust fund receive
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After spending the last four months assessing the government's unsuccessful attempts to fix the broken system, an independent consulting firm has recommended the Department of Interior "immediately" appoint one person to be in charge of trust reform.

A "single" and "accountable" overseer is necessary to ensure that the government's reform projects and its efforts to correct breaches of trust to an estimated 300,000 American Indians don't fail, EDS Corporation has told the Interior. The overseer must have authority and command over all aspects of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, EDS said, including setting budget and staff requirements; directing strategy of reform projects; and making sure progress is reported to a federal court and the public "with confidence."

The recommendation, the very first in a dozen or so contained in an internal report obtained by Indianz.Com, is exactly the kind of initiative the government is pressed to implement in order to avoid a collision course with contempt. Faced with two court-imposed deadlines, the Interior must argue why Secretary Gale Norton should not be sanctioned -- or worse yet, sent to jail -- for her handling of the debacle.

But in what will be a true test of the Bush administration under the leadership of Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, who has taken the lead on trust issues, the government must now resolve a complex dilemma. The urgent request for an "executive sponsor" is remarkably similar to what the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against the government have called for -- a receiver -- and exactly what the Interior has so far vehemently opposed.

Interior officials who were given the private report last Wednesday have until today to respond to the critical recommendation, which "if implemented, will increase the likelihood" of trust reform success, EDS says. Concurring with the proposal could bolster the government's defense and give Norton more time to prove she can fix the system while avoiding court fines and contempt.

On the other hand, ignoring it could prove costly to the government's already stained record of truthfulness. Interior officials have said they are "very impressed" with EDS and Norton's attorneys are expected to file a "road map" and final report the firm is authoring in federal court next week.

But leaving out such an important part of EDS' $3 million assessment would test the patience of not only American Indian beneficiaries but of U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth as well. At a status hearing last week, Lamberth voiced skepticism that Norton's lawyers, the third since the case started five years ago, can avoid certain disaster.

More than likely, though, the Interior will fashion a response that lies somewhere in between. In an effort aimed at responding to Lamberth's misgivings, Griles is considering issuing memorandums or secretarial orders that would show the government is in charge of trust reform, officials have said.

Recognizing problems his management has had with Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb is also looking to make changes, said officials. During a first of its kind meeting held early last month between the Office of the Special Trustee and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, McCaleb signaled greater cooperation.

Subsequent discussions have resulted in BIA managers who have previously conflicted with Slonaker now declaring their obedience to the OST. "They've heard the message from the court," said one official of the BIA's heightened awareness.

Whatever the response, the Interior cautions there won't be immediate results. "There's not going to be an instant demonstration of this," said spokesperson Keith Parsky of Griles' undertakings. "It will play itself out in our actions over time."

EDS first came into the picture in June, brought in to appraise a $40 million computer and records project that was later slammed by a court monitor. After Norton in July issued a secretarial order delegating additional authority to Slonaker, EDS was retained to provide an overall assessment of the government's High Level Implementation Plan, the blueprint to trust reform.

So far, EDS has provided two reports to the Interior. One was a set of "findings" issued on October 25 that were used to prepare the recommendations distributed last Wednesday in the second report.

A third report, on the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) and data cleanup, is due November 14. It will include the road map the government is expected to send to Judge Lamberth the next day, along with arguments why Norton and 38 officials, attorneys and management should not be held in contempt and why the plaintiffs' receiver request should be rejected.

During a radio appearance yesterday, lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell said a receiver was the only way to ensure Indian beneficiaries wouldn't continue to be ripped off by the government.

"Let's change the 100-plus years of mismanagement," the Blackfeet banker said on Native America Calling. "We all know the Department of Interior cannot manage our trust assets, so we need to make that change."

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

Related Stories:
Griles taking lead on trust reform (11/5)
Norton's defense off to a 'bad start' (11/2)
Judge ready to hold Norton in contempt (10/31)
Interior promises trust fund defense (10/31)
Judge: Norton's actions 'contemptuous' (10/30)
Trust fund defense team scrapped (10/30)
Action on Norton urged 'on all fronts' (10/29)
Norton views broken trust fund system (10/29)