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Official says trust reform 'imploding'

WASHINGTON - The government's top official responsible for clean up of Individual Indian Money trust account data management said the Department of Interior's reform efforts are "slowly, but surely imploding."

BIA Chief Information Officer Dominic Nessi, in a memo to Special Trustee Thomas Slonaker wrote that a reform plan submitted to a federal judge was based on "wishful and rosy projections."

The memo, disclosed by the Justice Department March 15, has Nessi saying that Interior's High Level Implementation Plan was the result of "posturing for the court." Justice lawyers said the memo raises "concerns" and asked for more time to reply to a legal motion by plaintiffs in Cobell vs. Norton.

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

The Feb. 23 memo was submitted to Slonaker the same day a federal appeals court ruled the government had mismanaged tribal trust funds since 1887. That ruling was part of an appeal by the government of an earlier decision by Judge Royce C. Lambert in the case, formerly Cobell vs. Babbitt. Nessi did not respond to phone calls.

For more than a quarter century, congressional and tribal members complained that the BIA failed to invest in the modernization of their account systems. In addition, the BIA investment activity in general left many questions with regard to the potential for funds were they properly invested. Hundreds of millions of dollars in potential interest were lost because money was left as cash for long periods of time, IIM account holders and plaintiffs argue.

Without an accounts receivable system and with so many leases missing, the BIA is unable to tell the trust account holders whether all of the income due on their asset leases has been collected. Mineral Management Service operations on tribal lands continued with no system to guarantee that the legal amount due a tribe or individual on those resources was in fact paid.

To date, the government has spent more than $40 million on a new computer system, called the Trust Assets and Accounting Management System (TAAMS), to track all money going in and out of trust accounts, Congressional records show. It is this system that Nessi, in charge of oversight, openly criticizes in the memo.

Just after the memo was written by Nessi, Slonaker filed a report with the court which characterized the situation in a much different light. Slonaker said substantial progress had been made with the new system. He said that as of the end of last year, all new land title documents are recorded in TAAMS in Alaska, eastern Oklahoma, the Rocky Mountains and the southern Plains.

Nessi, Slonaker, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton have testified in court and before Congress that trust reform and the new TAAMS were a success.

As recently as Feb. 28, Norton told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that TAAMS was a much-needed automated system and that "much progress has been made.

"These particular projects present huge challenges, but there is no doubt that they can be concluded satisfactorily," Norton said.

The American Indian plaintiffs in the case said it was "particularly disturbing" that Secretary Norton made no mention of the memo in the court-ordered quarterly progress report recently filed by Slonaker, or to the committee.

In papers filed in court just after the memo was made public, the plaintiffs pointed out numerous discrepancies between the government's report of Interior's attempts at trust reform and "grim disclosures" made by Nessi in the memo.

"If they're going to do this to the Court, you can imagine what they've done to Native people for 120 years," said Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the case. "The only way we're going to stop this is if we have personal sanctions for these people."

Justice lawyers are asking U.S. District Judge Lamberth to delay proceedings until May 4 to review allegations in the memo.

Cobell and other plaintiffs initiated the class-action lawsuit in 1996 to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars in unreconciled individual Indian money funds under the government's supervision since 1887. Government argues the law is unclear before 1994 and that the government should be able to move forward with reforms without judicial oversight.