Swimmer legacy still haunts BIA
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When Secretary of Interior Gale Norton last week defended Ross Swimmer from an attack by a concerned member of Congress, she brought back an era of Indian policy tribal leaders would rather forget.

Already steamed by her decision to hire the man who ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the last three years of the Reagan administration, many were outraged when Norton said initiatives he launched would have cured the Department of Interior of its trust management ills. "Ross Swimmer proposed some changes when he was Assistant Secretary that, had they been adopted, we would not be in the mess we are in today," she said.

Her words brought loud boos from those in attendance at the House Resources Committee hearing. For tribal leaders, the remarks highlighted for many their frustrations since Norton announced her controversial reorganization of trust duties in mid-November.

"It was a setback," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall in an interview. "It's hard to trust her now."

Although Indian trust has been an ongoing debacle, the issue gained heightened importance when Swimmer was at the BIA. It was during these years that critical conclusions about the management of tribal and individual assets were made, assertions that have since been proven false and have landed Norton in hot water in and out of court.

One was the desire to reform the system without input of tribal leaders, an area in which Norton has been particularly hit. When Swimmer in 1986 started to hand off trust assets to Mellon Bank -- without consultation and without knowing whether the accounts contained accurate balances -- he was met with huge opposition in Indian Country, leading Congress in 1987 to prohibit the department from transferring the funds without first providing an accounting.

Despite the Congressional directive, Swimmer failed to move forward with an accounting of either tribal assets of those of 300,000 individual Indians. Norton faces a contempt charge for failing to discharge the latter duty.

What Swimmer did do, though, was engage in a pattern of software development that has now collapsed under Norton's watch. In early 1998, he sought to contract the BIA's accounting practices to a third-party based on the now discarded belief that a software system existed to fulfill the department's needs.

Signing a lease later that year worth as much as $22 million with Security Pacific National Bank, Swimmer let the bank and its subcontractor, Computer Data Systems, try and develop a package featuring capabilities oddly similar to the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS). Norton last week said TAAMS has been "inadequate."

But even before that system development and contract fiasco, Swimmer was faced with much of the same problems. According to a report by the late congressman Mike Synar, the contract was approved even though a demonstration test showed that the system never stood a chance.

"Considering the results of this demonstration of software performance and development, it is not surprising that Security Pacific's subcontractor, Computer Data Systems, was unable to deliver a software package for accounting service for the trust fund," Synar wrote in "Misplaced Trust."

"The contract and contracting process failures had begun almost immediately," he wrote, noting that the BIA kept paying the bank nonetheless.

Swimmer was never held accountable for the project, which Norton and her aides said would have solved the department's woes. Instead, George Gover, a long-time BIA career employee, was forced to face the wrath of Congress when Swimmer departed for greener pastures.

"What deliverables were to be provided by Security Pacific National Bank under the original contract?" Gover was asked at an April 1990 hearing

"It was to provide a tribal and a trust fund management system, an integrated system for how we go about managing those funds," he responded.

"Was any of that accomplished?"

"No sir."

Eddie Brown, Swimmer's successor, finally put a halt to the contract in September 1990. Although the final damage -- a little more than $1 million -- was nowhere near the $40 million cost of TAAMS, the fiasco ensured Congress would watch closely over future software development efforts.

Today, however, tribes and Congress have little choice but to accept Swimmer's involvement in the Bush administration and Norton's intent desire to keep him there. When asked whether there were problems with his legacy, Norton flatly said she saw nothing wrong.

"I don't see anything that raises a conflict of interest," she said.

Norton will testify before a federal judge about her involvement in the management of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust tomorrow.

Relevant Documents:
American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 | PDF: Misplaced Trust

Get Written Hearing Testimony:
House Committee on Resources (2/6)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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