ABERDEEN, S.D. - By a 9-5 vote, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee sent the recommendation to the Senate to approve the appointment of Ross Swimmer as Special Trustee over trust funds for American Indians.
The dissenting votes on the committee came mainly from the senators located in the Great Plains where the tribal leadership passed along the recommendation to oppose Swimmer's nomination.
The Great Plains Tribal Leadership Committee opposed Swimmer's choice by Gale Norton to head the BITAM project that would reorganize the BIAs trust management responsibilities which was subsequently dropped at the insistence of the tribal leadership.
But, in a resolution, the GPTC said that during the George H.W. Bush Administration, Swimmer was the assistant secretary for Indian affairs and during that time his handling of the trust funds came under criticism in a Congressional Report. That report; "Misplaced Trust: The BIA's Mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund" led to the Trust Funds Management Reform Act of 1994.
In addition to mismanagement allegations, Swimmer is accused by the tribes as having participated, along with then Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, in secret negotiations with coal companies to negotiate renewal leases with the Navajo Nation with a loss to the Navajos of an estimated $600 million. The U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that the Navajo Nation could not sue for reimbursement of the $600 million.
"Ross Swimmer is particularly unsuited to serve as the special trustee in charge of the very funds that he has previously mismanaged to the detriment of the Indian people throughout the United States," the GPTCA stated in a resolution.
The Great Plains has 10 million acres held in trust and receives lease payments for grazing, oil and gas from a large portion of that land.
"Swimmer has no experience as a trustee and because of some financial dealings he was terminated from Cherokee Industries," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.
Hall said when Swimmer was assistant secretary he didn't respond to tribal desires for proper consultations and he did propose a plan to privatize the trust fund management without consultation with the tribes.
"Ross has a record of not having a successful relationship with the tribes," Hall said.
He added that Norton didn't know the background with Swimmer and tribes and that his appointment indicates a problem with listening to the tribal leaders' comments.
The National Congress of American Indians has not come out in direct opposition of Swimmer for the special trustee position, but does have a large concern on trust reform negotiations that were broken off by the DOI.
Many tribes have taken part in a letter writing campaign to their members of Congress and to the Senate Committee on Indian affairs with concerns or direct opposition. Swimmer's past is a major concern of many tribes, leaders said.
The money in the trust funds does not belong to taxpayers, it belongs to the tribal members and to the tribes, Hall was quick to point out. But in order to resolve the mess made by the DOI millions of dollars are spent in attempts to appease the federal court and to come up with a process to reorganize the system.
The Cobell vs. Norton case has yet to be heard, but the trial against the federal government should begin in May. The lawsuit was filed in 1996 as attempt to force the federal government to repay the Individual Indian Money account holders the fees due them and to reorganize the system to better keep track at manage the trust assets of some 300,000 American Indians. Swimmer would be in charge of that agency.
"The bottom line is that trust beneficiaries deserve a special trustee in whom they can have confidence to restore sound accounting principles and integrity to the federal government's management of trust assets.
"Regrettably, I agree with South Dakota tribal leaders and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association that Ross Swimmer is not the right man for the job," said Tom Daschle, D-S.D. and Senate Minority leader.
Swimmer has been placed in responsible positions with the DOI and has been an integral part of the department's disappointing effort to reform the trust management responsibilities. The 16 tribes in the Great Plains, which hold 10 million acres of trust lands and the tribes of that region have expressed their opposition to Daschle, and to the other Senators and congress people from the region.
Duane Big Eagle, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and a member of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association said that Swimmer was a threat to the tribes. "He has not good feeling about the welfare of tribes at heart."
Big Eagle said that because of the system it might not matter who is appointed to the position. They eventually become part of the system and go along with it to keep their job.
"It doesn't matter what tribe they come from or where they come from," Big Eagle said.
"Do the tribes expect him to get into the fight on their behalf? He will back the system or get replaced. I don't begrudge Swimmer the job. The fact that he is enrolled gives a little hope," Big Eagle said.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee voted no on Swimmer's nomination. He said his decision was made based on the department's poor track record and Swimmer's involvement in that process.
"I am not convinced that Mr. Swimmer is willing to take on the responsibilities associated with being special trustee in a legally responsible way," Johnson said.
Johnson brought up the White Mountain Apache vs. United State case just decided by the U.S. Supreme Court that stated the federal government is the trustee for American Indian property and that the government had a fiduciary responsibility.
"It is high time for the Department to start taking its responsibilities to Indians seriously. I have to admit, I do not have much faith," he said.
Johnson said he gave Swimmer some benefit of the doubt. He asked Swimmer how he intended to carry out his roll as special trustee. "His replies were what I consider non-responsive. And tribes, including those from my home state of South Dakota, could take no comfort that Mr. Swimmer can divorce himself from the Department's position on trust," he said.
Senator's Byron Dorgon, D-N.D.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; Harry Reid, D-Nevada; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. and Kent Conrad, D-N.D. voted against Swimmer's appointment.