Trust fund data center moves across country

Author:
Updated:
Original:

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Department of Interior Data Center which manages and processes checks for trust fund accounts is on the move from Albuquerque to Virginia and employees claim it wasn't necessary and they are upset.

The Office of Information Resources Management is being dismantled and relocated. This operation maintains systems that contain information on tribes and individual American Indians to pay per capita, grazing, timber, oil and gas royalties and social services benefits.

Many BIA employees claim the move was in retaliation for their comments about the new, off-the-shelf computer system that was to resolve mismanagement problems of the trust funds that occurred over the past century.

"The trust reform system was difficult in getting deployed. Many people knew that and they were targeted," said Mona Infield, a supervisor in charge of programming at the Albuquerque center. She said many people said the new Trust Asset and Accounting Management System would not work. There were many people who tried to tell the BIA the system would not work, she said. Instead, the entire center is on the move and many of the employees were separated, Infield said.

"Why move an office that serves Indian people from where Indian people live. I don't know the truth," Infield said. She sits in her house without an assignment though she remains on the payroll, she said.

"It's skirting Indian preference law," she said, adding there are fewer American Indians in Virginia than in New Mexico.

Kevin Gover, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said reports from the National Academy of Public Administration recommended that an office of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget be established. It would deal with financial, human resources, information resources and records and procurement management.

"As part of this effort, we determined that the geographic distance between BIA's Washington headquarters and its Albuquerque accounting and management and information resources management operations greatly contributed to BIA's severe accounting and management problems and increased a sense of isolation from ongoing priority management initiatives," Gover said.

BIA spokesman Rex Hackler said the employees were given a choice. They could move to new location in Virginia or choose separation or retirement. Most, Infield said, did not want to move.

"Employees were offered full relocation benefits with their acceptance to transfer with their current position," Gover said.

"We were given the option of a buyout for $25,000 or less if we quit the service," said Charlene Lattier, branch chief for operations and data management. "One person took a 14 percent cut in retirement."

In court documents, the BIA claims the move to the computer center in Virginia was in response to a report issued by the National Academy of Public Administration. The lawsuit in question is Cobell vs. Babbitt, a class action suit in U.S. District Court here on behalf of 300,000 Individual Indian Moneys account holders.

The plaintiffs claim the NAPA report did not mention a resource management center move. They argue that workers not as qualified replaced people who had worked on the system for many years and that independent contractors replaced BIA personnel. This action violated the privacy act, which applies to the gas, oil and other leases paid to tribes and individuals and services would be in jeopardy of disruption, the plaintiffs claimed.

To stop the move and prevent contract employees from taking over the system, the plaintiffs from Cobell v. Babbitt asked for and received a temporary restraining order.

"Claiming concern for the preservation of important trust data, plaintiffs have contributed to the jeopardy of the very same information they purport to care about," the government stated in court documents.

"Plaintiffs' counsel have enmeshed themselves in a fight over the relocation of an office, and in so doing, they have made a difficult situation worse." The government stated that if the restraining order was not lifted, substantial harm could come to Indian country.

Judge Royce Lamberth lifted the order April 4. That allowed contract workers to operate the systems and the move to continue. He also denied the plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction. But the judge, who has developed a reputation by holding Gover and Babbitt in contempt and siding frequently with the plaintiffs, added a lecture to the government in his ruling.

"It's clear that the defendants were, in fact, acting in violation of the law on March 7, when this court granted the temporary restraining order.

"This entire fiasco is vivid proof to this court that Secretary Babbitt and Assistant Secretary Gover have still failed to make the kind of efforts that are going to be required to ever make trust reform a reality," Judge Lamberth said.

Court documents submitted by the government said Gover ordered the relocation of the resource management offices to "remedy longstanding, material weaknesses in the functioning of the office." It went on to say there were problems with the legacy trust systems managed by the Albuquerque team.

Infield and Lattier disagree. Infield said it wasn't a perfect system, but recently the checks were being processed on time and records management was effective.

"Applications people on the floor were saying the (TAAMS) system was not working. Most of my help desk people said the same," Lattier said.

Lattier said when the contract personnel first came to the center, she denied them access to the system because they had no security clearances. On Feb. 14 they came back and said they were taking over the operations, she said. "I said ?No. Where's the contract?'"

She said an e-mail message came from Deborah Maddox, acting director of Management and Administration that security clearances were in order. "The contract didn't reflect work they did."

The move was to take place in step by step fashion. First, the contract people would work along side the Albuquerque staff to learn the system. Those who chose to move would relocate in Virginia while the contract people worked the Albuquerque system. When a parallel system was up and running, the Albuquerque system would be shut down.

Just recently, however, the BIA admitted that the TAAMS system would take more time to get up and running. All testing was done with test data, not actual records as would be inputted when the system is on line.

The government argued it needed to allow contractors access to the entire system to get acquainted with the operation, regardless of whether secure data was accessed. Attorneys for the government said Infield would not provide information to the contractors. On March 7 and March 15, Judge Lamberth denied access to confidential individual information until the contractors could show they were in full compliance with the requirements of the privacy act. The judge later lifted his order.

"Without the action that the plaintiffs took, this move was slated to take place without a security plan, and in violation of at least the Privacy Act, and probably other statues as well.

"I will say again what I've said before. The 300,000 Indian plaintiffs deserve better than they're getting from the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in this case.

"Even though the plaintiffs are not going to receive the preliminary injunction they seek today, they have again achieved another important victory in their effort to establish the defendants are either unable or unwilling to take the steps necessary to make trust reform a reality," Judge Lamberth said.