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Interior’s Swimmer has Preposterous Position

Once again, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s special trustee, and by extension the Bush administration, has chosen an especially preposterous position to take, and I have to speak out.

Not because I feel the need to on my own, but because I have since heard from an overwhelming number of Indian trust account holders from across the country who feel that Special Trustee Ross Swimmer has launched an attack on them, too.

Any time Interior decides that the best course of action in a given situation is to attack the credibility of a deceased but kind old Indian lady whose only sin was to unfortunately contract diabetes and then ask for help in enjoying the remaining days of her life, we know there is a major problem in decision-making, and lack of common sense, at the department.

Swimmer compounds his mistake by choosing the media to propagate his unwise position. I am almost relieved that the special trustee didn’t use his phone calls to Indian Country Today to challenge whether this Indian lady even had diabetes when she was alive.

The big difference between Indian tribal leaders and the department is that when our citizens come to us in pain and need, we take them seriously.

We believe our own people when they come to us and tell us what their situation is. So, while I think it is one thing for the special trustee to try and attack me, I think it is entirely unfair, unwise and definitely dangerous for him to attack our Indian elders and other Indian account holders.

We are not going to stand for it.

I also have to say that if ever there was a strong argument for settling the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit over the government’s mishandling of Indian Trust accounts, the special trustee’s actions have made that clear too.

The special trustee’s claim that this lady’s trust account had no money in it shows exactly why more than 500,000 Indians have joined Elouise Cobell and are suing the U.S. government.

The fact is that the government’s own records are unreliable. And the system is flat-out broken and Indian people have no faith in it.

It’s no surprise that the government’s position all along has been that everyone’s account is fine, and no one is missing any money. But we all know that’s not the case.

You don’t have to take my word for this. Just take the word of the government’s own officials who have testified under oath to the following: John M. Miller, former deputy special trustee, said the “database is plagued by missing records, unreliable information, severe security deficiencies and unverifiable audit trails.”

Principal Deputy Special Trustee Tommy Thompson said that the government knew of serious “issues with the quality of the data and the integrity of the data.”

Paul Holman, the first special trustee, has said the “electronic databases ... do not contain accurate ownership information. They do not contain accurate revenue and expense information that can be verified.”

“Do you believe that those systems are reliable?” he was asked.

“Absolutely not.”

“Do you think that the data in the systems has integrity?”

“No.”

Deputy Special Trustee Donna Erwin has said there is “no way of determining whether the majority of Individual Indian Money account statements could be accurate or not.”

Interior’s own auditor says this:

“Certain of these internal control weaknesses are so pervasive and so fundamental as to render certain significant accounting systems unreliable.”

More recently, a 2005 report by Interior’s inspector general noted: “Interior procedures and control were not adequate to ensure that Indian trust activities and balances were properly recorded.”

The accounting firm of KPMG said, “Inadequacies in trust-related systems make it impractical for the auditors ... to determine the fairness of trust balances.”

There’s little wonder that most Indians don’t believe the department when it claims it knows exactly how much is in each trust holder’s account.

What we need is an honest and fair settlement of the Cobell lawsuit. But what we also need is an acknowledgement from the U.S. government that they have lost and mismanaged our money and don’t know where it is – plain and simple.

What we don’t need is for the government to wage an individual account-by-account attack on every single Indian trust beneficiary.

Let’s get some leadership at the highest levels who can come up with real solutions to fix this broken trust. I pledge to do my part.

It’s up to the government to do theirs.

<i>Tex G. Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, is a past president of National Congress of American Indians.