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An Interview With Ross Swimmer

<i>Editors’ note: Ross Swimmer is the Special Trustee for Indian trust funds within the Department of the Interior. The Office of the Special Trustee was authorized by the 1994 Trust Fund Management Reform Act to house trust accounts and accounting functions that were previously the province of the BIA. Broadly considered, the office is charged with reforming Individual Indian Money accounting practice. The Senate confirmed Swimmer as the Special Trustee in 2003.</i>

Swimmer began a recent lengthy interview with Indian Country Today by recounting occasions when misinformation about the IIM trust, the subject of the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit that has pitted Interior against a plaintiff class of account holders, has made it into the media stream.

Ross Swimmer: We get a story like the little lady out in Navajo that’s got pumping oil wells in her back yard. You know, “Back when grandaddy had this oil well I was getting X dollars a month. Now I’m only getting this.” But it’s she and 1,000 other owners now from grandaddy that are getting this. But they don’t – there’s not that explanation, you know. “Why aren’t I a millionaire because I’ve got a pumping oil well?” Well it happens to belong to many, many people now, not just one like it did 40 years ago. […]

Every time we see a name of somebody that’s been taken advantage of … in fact there’s just no truth to it. And so we can’t ... we’re under the constraint that we can’t talk about an individual’s account. They [IIM account holders] can and the other side [in Cobell] can, but we can’t go in and say, “Well wait a minute, John Jones, that’s just not true, here’s his account statement” ... because that’s all under privacy of information without getting their release on it.

So we’re hamstrung somewhat by that. ... When you hear these outrageous stories, I mean, it does sound like we’re just, some of these cases, we’re just out there beating these poor people to death. And almost invariably there’s another side to the story. And just say, “Wait a minute. There are instances that are real. Let’s go out and figure out why they didn’t get their money.”

The other point that you made in your article [“Interior calls Hall on accuracy of trust account,” Vol. 25, Iss. 47] I really appreciate. Because you finally are picking up on what the lawsuit’s about. It’s about money. Elouise [Cobell] wants to make it about mismanagement of the asset. And it’s not that. And nobody is defending or prosecuting the mismanagement of the asset. There are instances that we’ve had problems with that and they’ve been cited in audit reports, where money came in that didn’t get deposited immediately, where there’s overgrazing on the land, where maybe there’s noxious weeds that weren’t taken care of. All of those kinds of things can constitute mismanagement, but they have nothing to do with this lawsuit. It is a claim for an accounting, and it just keeps morphing.

We get to work on the other side, which is the reform, so that all of these both real and perceived allegations of mismanagement get corrected. That’s what we can talk about today.

ICT: Great. And just let me make sure though – there are some, you wouldn’t deny, there are some cases where, you know, people have had problems because checks didn’t get out and things like that? There are some real cases like that out there?

Swimmer: ... There are many instances where I agree with past [Government Accounting Office], [Office of the Inspector General], all the audits that have been done, that we could do, could have done a better job of both managing the trust assets and the trust funds. The question is, at what cost? And that has to be part of the equation. For instance, we have situations where there are upwards of 2 million acres of land. These 2 million acres of land in the BIA have maybe two range managers who are supposed to go out and monitor for trespass, who are supposed to monitor for the condition of the land to make sure that they’re not overgrazing, that you have the right number of cows out on the land and that sort of thing.

Well, you know if you say can two people do that – well, that’s what Congress has given us to work with. That’s what, that’s what Congress says – you’ve got money for two people. That’s the extent of the trust, in this particular trust.

Now if I were in the private sector, I would say, I might say, “I can’t do that with two people, I’d go to the boss and say I’ve got to have six people.” … In our case Congress says, “I give you two people. You do the best you can.” Now from our side we say, “Well, you know, we will do the best we can” and that’s the standard that we have to abide by because that’s the only resource we have without going into the trust corpus, or without going into the income.

When we go out into the forest and we cut the trees, 100 percent of the proceeds, less 10 percent for some replanting costs, goes to the beneficiary. Again, if you were in a private sector trust, the cost of cutting the trees would be paid for by the sale of the trees – some of the income would go to financing the cost of doing all that, the survey, the appraisal, the actual harvesting and that kind of thing. In this trust it doesn’t. So in essence you have 100 percent of the benefit going to the beneficiary, and 100 percent of the cost coming from the federal budget. Congress controls that and says this is what you have to work with.

<i>Continued in part two