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Gap closes on details of trust reform

BISMARCK, N.D. ? "I think we are on the same page," Tex Hall said at a skeptical gathering of the National Congress of American Indians here about meetings between tribal chiefs and Department of Interior officials on resolving the trust account fiasco.

Hall is co-chairman of the Trust Reform Task Force, which met here before the mid-year session of the NCAI, which Hall also chairs.

"Overall in terms of the concepts, I think we are on the same page," Hall said in an interview. "The details have to be worked out. I'm pretty confident the details are right there. We are at the critical stage of the whole process."

Steven Griles, deputy assistant Secretary of Interior agreed with Hall. Griles also acts as a co-chairman of the Task Force.

"We are working diligently together in an attempt to find a consensus on how to go forward with trust reform," he said. "The key to this is two things: One is that we at the agency level believe that's where the services should be delivered.

"And the question at the local level ? at the agency level ? is how do you insure that the trust delivery service to the beneficiary is done in a manner by people who are trained and have the accountability to and the responsibility to deliver the services to the individual IIM [Individual Indian Mon ies] account holder and to the tribal government," Griles said.

Probably the most significant development to date is that Interior Secretary Gale Norton has dropped her proposal of last November for a separate Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management (BITAM).

"The philosophies are that we didn't want BITAM, we all agree on trust reform, we are all on the same page," said Tex Hall, co-chairman of the Task Force.

A final plan still has to be worked out that would be acceptable to the secretary and Congress. Interior has set a target date of June 26 when the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold an oversight hearing on the status of the trust fund reorganization. But tribal leaders are more optimistic than before.

Some delegates, however, raised questions about the first drafts of the plan. A major concern is accountability between levels of the trust office, regional offices and the agencies. Critics are saying there is no guarantee that personnel wouldn't be put into positions without proper training, thus undermining the integrity of the trust authority.

"There is a wide line between us. We have to get rid of that line," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe.

An alternate proposal includes an independent external commission to monitor and provide oversight of the trust accounting system.

"We have offered to the tribal leaders some thoughts to the external commission and both sides have agreed to go back and evaluate how that commission could operate and what authority and responsibility could potentially be delegated to it," Griles responded.

"Once we have some ideas we will review those with the secretary and the Task Force and the Task Force is doing several things in terms of looking at the desire to have an external commission,"

"Obviously we will work very hard on that effort," Hall said. "But we are also cognizant of the need for legislation."

Hall said the aim of the Task Force was "to make sure that this reform plan is beneficiary driven. That's the goal line."

He said he wanted to see that "an individual Indian or individual tribal government can log on to their computer and look for their account balance with their interest at anytime of the day and know what they are getting. And to be able to pull up their land holdings and not have to sit in their BIA office and wait and wait to hear, well, we don't have that up, that 40 acres over there, we just got your 320 here or that probate that is still five years back, but come back tomorrow, or come back next month or come back next year. And pretty soon another generation passes on and land fractionates further and there is nothing done.

"Those days are gone," Hall said.