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Interior secretary's orders signal trust reform commitment

WASHINGTON - Acknowledged confusion by the BIA over trust funds led Interior Secretary Gale Norton to issue orders that would promote trust fund reform, strengthen authority and provide additional oversight.

Norton issued two Secretarial Orders; one provides additional authority to the Special Trustee for American Indians while the other creates a new Office of Historical Accounting.

"My actions today are meant to signal my unequivocal commitment to ensuring the progress of effective trust reform and to advance the Departmental responsibility to provide a historical accounting to IIM beneficiaries," Norton said May 10.

"I believe that bringing the Department's trust practices into the 21st century and living up to the fiduciary responsibilities we owe Indian tribes and trust beneficiaries are critical missions of the Department.

"In order to be successful, I believe the steps we take today are essential and will focus our approach to the challenges that still lie ahead."

In a memorandum to top level people in Interior, Norton stated that the move to issue the two orders was to alleviate frustration and concerns over the IIM debacle.

Progress in reform plans brought months of criticism from U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth about the BIA handling of trust reform efforts. And there have been several contempt of court charges against former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Assistant Secretary for Indian affairs Kevin Gover, and now Norton has been held in contempt of court for lack of cooperation in producing documents and reform efforts.

A class action lawsuit, Cobell vs. Norton, asking for reform and accountability in the Individual Indian Money accounts, was filed seven years ago and is still in litigation.

Norton said she is issuing the orders to ensure that trust reform is proceeding at the appropriate pace and on the right track. Her action brings the Bush administration behind the efforts of trust reform of the IIM system. Neal McCaleb, newly sworn in as assistant secretary for Indian affairs placed trust reform high on his agenda.

One of the new orders delegates additional authority to the Special Trustee for American Indians, Thomas N. Slonaker, that will improve his capacity to implement plans for trust reform and recommend future revisions or amendments to those plans.

The 1994 American Indian Trust Reform Act established the position of a special trustee to oversee and direct all aspects of trust funds management reform within the BIA, the Bureau of Land Management and the Minerals Management Service.

Norton's new Office of Historical Trust Accounting will oversee the historical accounting to Individual Indian Money beneficiaries mandated by the court in Cobell vs. Norton.

Its initial task will be to develop a comprehensive plan analyzing options to accomplish historical accounting and provide timetables for implementation that can be reviewed by the court, Congress, IIM beneficiaries and the public.

The plan will also provide Congress with projected costs so it can decide how best to appropriate funds for continuing trust reform efforts.

Norton named Bert T. Edwards as executive director of the new office. From 1998 to 2001, Edwards served as chief financial officer to the Department of State, an assistant Secretary level position, where he oversaw domestic and overseas financial operations for the department.

Interior, the BIA and the special trustee are in the midst of a multi-year, multi-agency effort detailed in a High Level Implementation Plan presented to the U.S. District Court last year.

This plan outlines the scope of a reform effort that involves the coordination and attention of numerous federal departments and bureaus, as well as tribes and individual account holders. It details the new automated systems installed to better manage trust funds and trust assets - the Trust Fund Accounting System and the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS).

Since Interior issued this plan, the court has questioned its effectiveness and cited a number of internal problems within Interior over its implementation.

Under the new order, the special trustee is directed to contract with a private financial management consulting firm to provide an assessment of all the department's trust reform efforts. Slonaker is ordered to make sure these efforts are moving together in a coordinated fashion and that each is managed to assure success of the entire project.

While this new approach to evaluate Interior's trust reform efforts was positively received, most are waiting to see actual results.

"Secretary Norton certainly got the message from Congress. The BIA has been resistant to out-sourcing and contracting in the past, so it's good that they are finally considering it, but we'll have to see what happens and if the new directives really help," said Jackie Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

Eloise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she was not confident reform could come from within the system.

Nearly at the same time Norton announced the two new orders to create reform, the TAAMS computer system in the Billings Regional Office failed a test and corrupted existing data. While Interior acknowledged the failure, it did not indicate it would not stop efforts to make the system work. Norton had nothing to say about that incident at her signing ceremony.

TAAMS, customized software that was to manage the IIM account data, has been in the development stage for more than three years. Babbitt and Gover were confident the system would be up and running within a year after implementation. It first was established in the Billings Area Office.