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Interior never got it right

WASHINGTON ? While the current crisis in the Interior Department's data management is new, the problems at the heart of the issue are not.

Revelations are mounting about bureaucratic incompetence as computer systems at Interior still remain disconnected from the Internet and the contempt trial against Interior Secretary Gale Norton continues.

In court ordered reports and trial testimony, officials at Interior have been characterized as poor managers, unconcerned administrators and downright liars over their management of computer systems responsible for billions of dollars in Indian trust assets.

For years Interior officials knew about problems with the multi-million dollar system designed to handle Indian trust assets, but still did nothing, say its own employees.

After Congress forced the department in 1994 to address the trust management problem, officials set out to construct a computer system to handle what little data Interior maintained. To date, the government has spent nearly $40 million on this system, called the Trust Assets and Accounting Management System, or TAAMS, but it has not produced a working model. The system was intended to track all monies going in and out of Indian trust accounts.

Recently in court proceedings, Daryl White, the chief information officer at Interior since March 1998, acknowledged that he attended high-level meetings and even authored memos about the trust computer project, but denied he had any responsibility, placing the blame on former BIA project manager Dominic Nessi. Nessi said he couldn't meet the requirements," White said.

Nessi, the top official responsible for the cleanup of Indian trust account data management, said in a memo last February that the reform efforts are "slowly, but surely imploding" and that a reform plan submitted to a federal judge was based on "wishful and rosy projections."

The memo written by Nessi was addressed to Special Trustee Thomas Slonaker. In the memo, which was disclosed by the Justice Department, Nessi says that Interior's High Level Implementation Plan, or HLIP, was the result of "posturing for the court."

"No in-depth analysis was performed before the development of the HLIP," wrote Nessi. "Instead, posturing for the Court and between DOI organizations seemed to be the primary influence on objectives and time-frames..."

The memo was submitted to Slonaker the same day that a federal appeals court ruled that the government had mismanaged tribal trust funds since 1887. The ruling came as part of an appeal by the government after an earlier decision by Judge Royce C. Lamberth in the case, formally titled Cobell v. Babbitt.

When asked about the memo in court, White said Nessi's characterizations were just the complaints of a frustrated manager. "This memo reflects a project manager's frustrations after being with a project for a very long time," White told the court. "A note like this does not surprise me."

White also authored a number of memos expressing his concerns about problems and "challenges" in the system's development, but Nessi's memo prompted the judge in the Cobell case to appoint a court monitor to investigate problems with trust data systems. It was reports from these investigations which led to contempt charges against Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb.

That court monitor, Alan Balaran, recently filed a report with the court saying that Interior has still not asked the court for permission to reconnect to the Internet, even though the department is telling the media and the general public that its Web sites were off-line and trust beneficiaries were not getting their checks because of the court-ordered shutdown.

Judge Lamberth had granted a request by Indian plaintiffs to close down the system after he unsealed a report by Balaran documenting major lapses in computer security for trust data. However, under a subsequent order, Interior was granted permission to operate and reconnect some of its systems, but only after a 72- hour notice and the approval of Balaran. Interior has yet to receive that approval.

To date, Interior has only received permission to reconnect the United States Geological Survey, or USGS, Web site, where some information from other agencies, like the BIA, is also being provided. However, other vital systems still remain disconnected.

"Access to the DOI website has been restricted in compliance with a court order," reads the DOI Web site. "Select DOI webpages will be made available to the public through USGS, who has received court approval to reconnect to the Internet. All information posted on this version of DOI.GOV will be certified not to contain or provide access to individual Indian trust data."