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An interview with Ross Swimmer

WASHINGTON - Ross O. Swimmer doesn't look overly conspiratorial. His keen eyes and gray blade of a brow-line may remind some of a poker face; but others may consider it no more than the reserve customary for one used to being "in the thick of it," politically speaking.

Swimmer survived the most contentious nomination process ever for an Indian affairs candidate, emerging from a prolonged Senate process with a 72-24 confirmation to the Office of the Special Trustee.

Swimmer and the OST manage Indian fiduciary trust assets for the Interior Department, which alone puts him in the middle of the trust management reform process that is taking place in both the Individual Indian Money accounts through a class action lawsuit and its related court decisions and congressional actions, and in the tribal trust funds that remain the subject of daily toil at Interior and its subordinate branch, the BIA.

The rising stakes of the trust management reform process, along with the ongoing reorganization of the BIA and the increased competition for funds across all federal departments as a $400 billion deficit weighs on the national treasury has generated accusation, rumor and concern throughout Indian country.

Congressional appropriations to the OST have been said to come from BIA coffers - specifically, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee has heard that $32 million in BIA education funding went to the OST, a charge Swimmer says is "out of thin air."

"There is no money out of appropriated funds that is coming to us. It's new funding."

And it's less than some have stated, he said. The OST budget is $30 to $40 million, though more passes through the OST because Congress accounts for certain appropriations to other trust programs within Interior in that way. Funding for a historical accounting of the IIM trust gets accounted for under the OST, he explained, but his office doesn't see or spend the money - it goes directly to the Office of Historical Trust Accounting. Likewise, $15 million for land consolidation efforts is accounted for under the OST, but his office simply signs it over to the bureau, Swimmer said. "We just gave the BIA $9 million of our so-called ? money."

Swimmer also points out the rather over-the-top optimism in the oft-heard idea that if Congress weren't plowing money into the OST, that money would be going for Indian services. "History tells us that isn't true."

Without the attention focused on trust reform by the Cobell lawsuit and its ramifications - to the contrary, Congress wouldn't be investing in a trust fix, all right, but Indian services wouldn't benefit from the inattention any more than they ever have.

In addition, Swimmer addressed the widespread suspicion that there's a move on to disengage the federal government from its longstanding policy of tribal self-determination - a suspicion, in blunt terms, that tribal termination and subservience to central authority on the 1950s model is coming around again.

Not true, Swimmer insists, as have Bush's other appointees in Indian affairs. "It's still the best thing since ice cream," he said of tribal self-governance. "There is no way I or anyone in this department wants to turn back the clock on self-governance. We fully embrace it."

In brief, in the Bush administration according to Swimmer, no anti-Indian conspiracies are afoot within Interior or the OST.

"We're not capable of conspiracy. It's just not possible. We can barely manage a strategy for the people who work here."

There's plenty of work without a conspiracy to hatch and maintain. Swimmer says he has extended his hours "about as far as they'll extend" by starting at 6:30 most days and staying late.

He has a great deal going for him that his predecessors did not, including a thorough experience of Indian country and of Washington's Indian-specific bureaucracies, high stock within Republican circles and good standing with President Bush himself, and an unusually deep institutional memory of the Interior Department and its trust reform initiatives of the past. After all, he previously served as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and as head of the BIA.

Because trust reform has advanced somewhat in seven years, popular impressions to the contrary, his greatest advantage may be that he can focus on fixing problems - it is the one he starts with in an interview that will take up the better part of an hour.

"Part of our advantage here is that there are many competing agencies within Indian country. We [OST] are charged with one. Trust ? fiduciary trust."

The primary trouble with this monetary trust is that it wasn't set up as such, Swimmer explained. It was set up in 1887 as a land trust, a way of holding allotted land in trust for individual Indians. The congressional act that ushered lease income into the trust brought money into land-related accounts, and with it accountability. The trust system wasn't set up to deal with the asset of income. "It never went away, it continued to grow, and as a product of that this fractionation [of land interests among multiple heirs] began."

The full overhaul of a system flawed from the start has waited until this day. The OST will oversee the reform, in keeping with the 1994 reform law, in the role essentially of a comptroller.

But Congress has also delegated to OST the functions of management and accounting previously fulfilled by the Office of Trust Funds Management. It is here, in the exposure of erratic accounting and management standards, that previous OST regimes have met with setbacks. Donna Irwin, an OTFM officer with private sector experience, "could see that the way the money had been handled at BIA was simply unacceptable," Swimmer said.

A whole new set of standards would have to be installed at the bureau, and with it a new culture instilled.

"We need to balance our books. That was a heretical idea," Swimmer related.

"We simply didn't have that level of expertise here that the special trustee [Paul Homan] brought in ? That's where some of the friction developed."

Though it would lead to outrageous statements of racism and strange funding priorities from Interior and the BIA (subjects Swimmer left unmentioned), the friction wasn't a bad thing in Swimmer's view. It created an environment that is somewhat like having a bank examiner around - a healthy environment where fiduciary trust is concerned.

"All we're trying to do now is focus on the fiduciary trust, apart from the other things the BIA does."

The much-discussed BIA reorganization focused on trust reform for that reason, he said. The centerpiece of the reorganization is to introduce complementary authorities that will resolve most trust-related issues at the agency level. BIA deputy superintendents for trust services will be in place at each of the BIA agency offices, working with their counterpart OST trust officers who will introduce "relationships to the outside world." If the interface between BIA and OST agency personnel leaves anything unsettled, the issue(s) will be referred to BIA deputy regional directors for trust services in each of the 12 BIA regions, working with their OST counterparts - six regional fiduciary trust administrators.

This system is being piloted at Anadarko region and Concho agency in Oklahoma, Swimmer said, with highly encouraging results.

Otherwise, if a mistake is made locally and gets up to the regional level, the only way to clear it up is with a world of back-and-forthing. Swimmer hopes to eliminate most of the errors and almost all of the back-and-forthing, resulting in improved services on-site to the beneficiaries.

Swimmer is also re-engineering fiduciary trust business processes along proven standards from the private sector, and exploring the establishment of independent trust real estate appraisers within Interior.

Previously trust appraisers have worked in various Interior agencies, often under the thumb of realty officers, raising "concerns about the objectivity and management of the appraisal programs ? documented in reports issued by the Department's Inspector General, the General Accounting Office and other groups," according to an Interior release. Among the decisions to be made is whether consolidation should take place, whether OST should participate, and presumably whether the consolidated appraisal office should be located within OST.