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Pointed questions for special trustee

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WORLEY, Idaho -- The special trustee for American Indians was peppered with
questions about doubtful policies and unkept promises when he addressed
attendees of the annual land consolidation meeting of the Indian Land
Working Group in Worley.

Ross Swimmer acknowledged some of the shortcomings shown by the federal
government in its trust capacity for tribes and individual Indians, but
pointed to new technology which he said will help sort out the mess.

The landmark trust litigation case, Cobell v. Norton, has alleged the loss
of billions of dollars in money the U.S. government was holding in trust
for tribes and individual Indians, and a pervasive lack of accounting and
shoddy record keeping.

Swimmer, a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, spoke
of the "state of the art" trust system being put in place.

He conceded that an earlier system, the Trust Assets Accounting Management
System, had been inadequate. But he said that two of TAAMS' surviving
modules, concerning title and leasing, and the new Trust Fund Accounting
System are now inter-workable and that trust accounts are now "balanced to
the penny every day."

To do the accounting required by the rulings in Cobell, Swimmer said "we
needed to get a handle" on the millions of records "scattered all over
Indian country."

A central repository in Lenexa, Kan., now holds 120,000 boxes of records
totaling 250 million pages, stored and indexed in one place. Many of them
have been scanned electronically, he added.

The title module is now realtime and contains universal records from all
agencies, Swimmer said. And the leasing module is now "a key component to
track the use of the land."

The technology has finished a pilot tryout in the Anadarko and Concho,
Okla. BIA offices and is now set for a rollout to all agencies over the
next couple of years.

The Office of the Special Trustee has created a call center with a
toll-free telephone number for information on accounts or land status. Some
33,000 calls have been logged in the past four months, he said.

OST, created to regularize the federal government's spotty trust
performance, also has rolled out a beneficiary services outreach effort. It
now considers that it has a fiduciary responsibility to its beneficiaries
-- in other words, that it must achieve the best result for its clients,
not just manage them any way it can.

"The trust is unique. The department is managing and overseeing as a trust
your property -- money, land, natural resources. That must be done as a
fiduciary would do it," he said.

So, OST has put trust officers in BIA agencies to help. Swimmer conceded
that at some agencies, there is an attitude of "'we'll get to it when we
can.' That's not acceptable."

Swimmer conceded there's a lot to do, noting "huge backlogs" in probate
cases, "whereabouts unknown" accounts and special deposit accounts. Some
$60 - $70 million is being held for people whose whereabouts are unknown.
"We have to find these people," he said.

The special trustee noted budget concerns limit what his office can do. Of
$220 million appropriated for fiscal 2006, OST will see just one-third of
it. The rest goes to support other Interior Department efforts, such as the
BIA, Bureau of Land Management, and Office of Hearings and Appeals.

While affording the trustee a polite reception, ILWG attendees asked him
sharp questions, including some about several instances of outreach officer
promises allegedly not kept. Loud applause greeted a pointed disagreement
with him.