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An interview with Ross Swimmer

Part Four

Editors’ note: Ross Swimmer is the Special Trustee for Indian trust funds within the Department of Interior. The Office of the Special Trustee was authorized by the 1994 American Indian 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 IIM accounting practice. The Senate confirmed Swimmer as the Special Trustee in 2003.

Ross Swimmer: We’ve created the accounts receivable, or what we call the funds receivable. We’ve created the invoicing system. We’ve created the single title system. We have now three IT systems that are basically replacing about 12, maybe more, legacy systems, older systems, and most of them are at least 30 years old now. So these three systems, called the payment system, the ... accounting system ... and the title system, they all communicate so when information comes in on one of them it gets spread to the others, automatically.

So all this stuff, in theory – and it’s not, it’s – we’ve only converted one region completely, the Anadarko region. In theory what happens is the lease is made, the payments are agreed to, invoicing goes out, payment comes in the lock box, immediately gets spread to the owner of the property via the electronic input to the title plan, immediately gets booked into Treasury and gets put on that person’s account, and then a check is cut automatically to that person and goes out, assuming the check’s more than $15. Or if it’s a direct deposit, then it goes in no matter what amount it is.

So, you know, again, this kind of technology, this kind of operation, we now have what I call a proven concept because it works, and it’s installed fully in one region, which is our highest income producing region in the bureau, the Anadarko, mainly because of oil and gas payments.

We are now converting Rocky Mountain and Great Plains. By the end of ... this year we will have roughly 60 percent. By the end of 2007, we should have captured ... 95 percent of all income and all individual beneficiaries in the new system. ...

The other thing that we have done, the statute, the ’94 reform act, says that the department will send a statement of account to individual beneficiaries that will contain the source, type, status of funds, ending balance, gains and losses ... The BIA had not previously sent statements out that contained the source of funds. Once again, another sore point for the beneficiaries and rightfully so. I mean if you got a statement, again, from your trust company and said you had earnings this month of a thousand dollars, and you had multiple properties you’d say, “Well, which one did it come from?” Well, we can give it to you, but it’s going to take a little while to figure it out. Because all this money came in and went into your account.

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Indian Country Today: The systems don’t talk to each other?

Swimmer: Right. The new asset statements are generated from the new systems. The asset statements will contain a listing of all of your property holdings, and it will contain encumbrances against them – does this piece of property have a right of way, does it have a lease, does it have – is there a pending sale, whatever? And it will show the income came from those different properties. Now again, that is in place in Anadarko and those asset statements are going out to people now. ...

I think that by 2008, 2009, we’re going to be in what I call sort of a steady state, where we’re going to be operating the basic trust operation. ...

We still have these intractable problems of [land] fractionation. ... There are some 3, 3.2 million interests owned by 213,000 people. Something’s got to be done, and certainly I think we would like to be there to help guide that effort, you know, if Congress really gets engaged and decides they want to do something about it. ...

ICT: Do you have any thoughts to share on the legislated settlement possibilities [in Cobell v. Norton], or are you going to stay out of that?

Swimmer: Well, we’re sort of like everyone else: we would love to get rid of this case. ... It is incredibly burdensome. ... What has resulted from this case, just one instance, is the lack of Internet. We don’t have it. We’ve got intranet, and the judge is even trying to shut that down [in Cobell, over security concerns]. ... So we want out of it too. We’d love to settle.

Unfortunately, we’re having trouble finding a basis for a number [a dollar figure to award IIM account holders for losses]. The expectations from the lawsuit are such that a lot of Indian people think there’s going to be a huge payday. ... As we talked earlier, the lawsuit is about an accounting. And it’s [the accounting] not showing that there’s a lot of money missing. ... We’re spending money to reconcile a transaction that results in someone getting paid 58 cents. And it costs, on average, couple thousand dollars to reconcile a transaction. I mean you go back to 1985, and you had a lease for $300, 400 people got some money out of it, each one of those is a transaction when that lease was paid, each one of them we have to go through and we plug it in to the tool, then we have to go find the lease, we have to see the amount, we have to compare it with what came in – I mean all this is done to verify a transaction.

From 1985 until 2000, there were somewhere around 30 million-plus transactions. Twenty-five million of those were less than a dollar. I mean those are the kinds of things we’re dealing with. It doesn’t make any sense. We’ve done enough accounting. And we’ll continue to do accounting. We can account, you know, from now on. But the accounting is going to show what it shows. And where you go from there I don’t know, but it doesn’t give you a real good feeling to have to say, “Well, based on what you’ve found so far, can we cobble together a basis for $10 billion, or $27 billion or $176 billion?” So we have to come up with something else, and that’s where I think the Congress is really trying to focus. What can we put into this thing to make it reasonable?