Swimmer confirmed as special trustee on trust funds

WASHINGTON - Ross O. Swimmer survived the most contentious nomination process ever for an Indian affairs candidate, emerging from an April 10 late-evening vote of the Senate with a 72-24 confirmation to the post of special trustee.

Swimmer will manage Indian fiduciary trust assets for the Interior Department, according to an Interior release. This alone will put him in the middle of the trust management reform process that is taking place in both the Individual Indian Monies accounts through a class action lawsuit and in the tribal trust funds that remain the subject of daily toil at Interior and its subsidiary branch, the BIA.

In 1994, when a trust funds reform law created the Office of the Special Trustee within Interior, it was viewed as a change agent within a hidebound, heavily bureaucratized agency. But two special trustees since have run afoul of Interior. Swimmer, a former chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and an attorney with a practice in Tulsa, is the first Indian to hold the office. He told the Associated Press that will be his advantage, as previous special trustees could not help but have difficulty transitioning from the private sector to working with Indian country, with its mix of cultures, jurisdictions, political and bureaucratic interests.

Swimmer's high stock within Republican circles may also place him in good stead as special trustee. During the Reagan administration, he headed the BIA. Since 2001, he has served as President Bush's director of the Office of Indian Trust Transition. He continues to advocate the Republican philosophy that private sector businesses perform many tasks more efficiently than government. This makes him a proponent of "outsourcing" government services, an option he will continue to explore as special trustee, according to AP.

But this penchant for outsourcing, as well as a lingering reputation from the Reagan years as a businessman more interested in bottom line results than in services and distrust within some quarters of the Indian community for the ultimate purpose of the Office of Indian Trust Transition, was behind Swimmer's struggles in the Senate. Swimmer led a somewhat low-profile effort - some at the time considered it practically clandestine - in the late 1980s to privatize or "outsource" trust funds management before a full effort had been made to reconcile the accounts. The initiative earned him the apparently lasting opprobrium of trust funds reform advocates, who insisted on the government's responsibility to render an accounting of the funds before washing its hands of them through privatization. Swimmer may have had the episode in mind when he commented to AP that trust issues are the unfinished business of his first stint in Washington.

Bush nominated Swimmer as special trustee in January 2003. But at his Feb. 12 hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, opponents managed to stall the process and put a hold on a vote of the full Senate. The opponents insisted on getting written responses from Swimmer to a series of questions, among them whether he would consult with tribes as special trustee.

Finally the nomination came to a vote. But opponents insisted it be a roll call vote - a known mark on the voting record of every Senate member. On a nomination vote, the tactic is considered highly adversarial in the Senate. Perhaps never before has a roll call been demanded for an Indian affairs nominee. Perhaps never before has an approval for an Indian affairs position been other than unanimous. The 24 nay votes came from a number of states, but preponderance were from those with a comparatively high Indian population.