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An interview with Ross Swimmer- part 3

Part 3

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.

Swimmer: So we’ve got trust officers, we’ve got the lockbox, we’ve got the beneficiary call center. What we do now is we look at the systems. How does this system work? The BIA, because of the way it developed over the years – I mentioned the 80 agencies – came into the information age by developing a lot of homegrown IT [information technology] systems. Whenever an area director, in some cases the superintendent, decided he would like to … manage information in a data base, he’d grab ahold of whoever the latest computer jock was and said I need you to write me a program, so I can manage this realty business. And so they would write up a little program. As a result of that we’ve got MADS, GLADS, RIM, RDRS, IRMS – I mean there are 10 or 12 of these.

Indian Country Today: BITAM – don’t forget BITAM.

Swimmer: Well, you know, we’d like to forget BITAM. So we have all these computer programs out there and none of them speak to each other. We had a 30-year-old title program that didn’t speak to itself, I mean it was developed regionally. So if you had land in three regions, you had to every single, each one of those regions, to find out if you owned land there. You couldn’t just put your name in the system and have it pop up for three properties.

Today, the average individual beneficiary has 12 or 13 properties, and often on that many reservations. So we had to do something about this. An attempt was made in the late ’90s by the BIA. It was called TAAMS. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. They took an off-the-shelf system and then decided to customize it, and it just basically blew up on them. So beginning, then, in – with the development of the comprehensive trust management plan, which was sort of elementary, I mean a plan at least for what you’re going to do to modernize this trust. We developed that in ’03. Then we said, “Okay, we have the plan; but before we implement it, before we go buy all this software and start doing things, let’s find out exactly how all these processes are done to date.” And that you’ve heard referred to as an “as-is study.”

We literally went across the country, talked to hundreds of people, and said, “I want you to document every trust activity, whether it’s check collection, management of land, cutting timber, whatever it is I want you to document how you do it, what pieces of paper do you push to get this done?”

In ’04, we then did what we call the “to be.” We said “Okay, now we’ve seen how you’re doing it, we have this comprehensive plan for how we think globally this program should work. Now, let’s create the ideal trust model to manage this trust. What would you do instead of what you’re doing or in addition to what you’re doing, as far as leasing the land, collecting the money, investing, managing the assets, and all that? What – how would you do it?”

We spent almost a year ... it’s about a thousand pages. And we went through all the business lines, all the business processes, said, “Okay … here’s how we think we should do it.” And out of that came this fiduciary trust model. If I’m going to set up as good as possible of a trust company within the Department of the Interior to manage the trust assets and the money, how would I do it?

This [fiduciary trust model] is what we chose. And this was basically agreed to by all the participants. ... So we did that, and we began what I call the modernization process. Now – now we know what software we need. We knew because of what we saw that we had to have some title software. Back in the ’90s an effort had been made to develop a title software program. We completed the development of that with a company down in Texas called CGI. CGI – we still call it the TAAMS, but they took the title program, completed the … development work on it and we installed it across the BIA, so every title plant now has new software.

But one of the things we found as we studied this situation was that for many, many years – I don’t know how many, it’s been 40 or 50 years, I guess – the BIA operated – and you’ll hear this reference made sometimes in some of the [court] testimony – the BIA operated two ownership systems. … You got two systems, one is the record ownership, one is who gets paid. Ideally, they would be reconciled. But they didn’t always get reconciled.

Again, part of it was staffing. The one thing the BIA wanted to be sure of is that the right people got paid. So guess which system they kept up. They would always make sure, to the best they could, that the payment system ... was current. So when a probate occurred, they would make sure that they went through and recorded the heirship in the IRMS, or the MADS, GLADS or whatever system they were using. So that when the money came in, that money would be distributed to the right people.

However, while they should have at the same time updated the official title system, and put the new heirs in with their proportion of ownership of the land, they didn’t always do it immediately. And so if you went to the two title systems as they were using them, you would find they were not in balance. … Both systems didn’t always get reconciled like they should.

Again, this is used in the public as saying, “Well, they don’t even know who owns this land. They don’t even know who the beneficiaries are.” That’s not true. We do know. It’s just that again, it takes a lot of manual time. For instance, somebody says, “I want to get a title status report on my land. I’m going to sell it, or I want to find out what it’s worth, or I may want to gift it to somebody.” So they go to the LTRO [Land Record Title Office], like a county courthouse, and say, “I want to know who owns this property.” It could take three or four months. Because the LTRO officer … would have to go over to the IRMS system and say, “I need all the documents, I need all the leases, I need all of the probate information you’ve recorded over here because I’ve got to bring my records current on this individual in order to get him a title status report.” It could be done, but it couldn’t be done tomorrow for 260,000 people.

ICT: No efficiency possible?

Swimmer: None, none. It was an antiquated system, 30, 40 years old; it was the beginning of information technology, far away from where we are today. So another reform – collapse it. One title system, one pay system. The title system becomes the pay system. And if there are anomalies, where somebody gets paid that doesn’t own, that’s recorded in the title system. So the title system becomes, as it should, the system of record. We eliminate all these other so-called payment systems out there.

Continued in part four