Interior faces old problems

Indian trust reform lawsuits progress, but management issues remain

As the long-running trust reform trial resumed last month, the Interior Department continued to grapple with old computer challenges.

Although Interior has finalized its plan to overhaul how it manages American Indian money, including realigning functions within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee, some of the department remains off-line. To a large extent, the computer systems support BIA and OST, agencies that rely on information technology to fulfill their trust fund duties.

"One of the most serious problems is the lack of access to real-time communication through the Internet," department officials wrote in their most recent status report to the court, submitted May 1. "It is essential that access to the Internet be permitted as quickly as possible."

U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, citing security concerns, ordered Interior to disconnect from the Internet in December 2001 to protect data maintained under the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System. Since then, most of the department has gone back online.

But TAAMS, which was designed to replace two Interior legacy systems used to distribute royalty checks to more than 300,000 American Indians, is still a sore spot. The program's titles portion, which maintains land data and is running in some regions, could be salvaged, but further deployment has been delayed, according to an earlier report.

"There are many challenges that must be addressed regarding the integration, performance, funding, security and data integrity of IT systems," Interior Secretary Gale Norton wrote in the department's latest update. "These challenges have been discussed in several prior reports and most remain as challenges."

Interior's inability to build TAAMS and to account for the fees that oil and gas companies, ranchers, farmers and other businesses annually pay to beneficiaries has resulted in a multibillion- dollar class-action lawsuit filed in 1996.

The financial and emotional impact on the agencies involved has prompted two senators — Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) — to call for a settlement. In an April 8 letter to the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which is overseeing the suit, Campbell and Inouye wrote that they would introduce legislation if progress toward a resolution was not made "within a reasonable amount of time."

In a May 23 response, NARF officials expressed their willingness to work toward a fair resolution. However, their counsel noted, "On five previous occasions we have engaged the executive branch in fruitless settlement discussions."

Officials said they were ready to talk about preliminary matters, but asked that the senators hold off pursuing a final resolution. "This trial is going to resolve a whole bunch of issues," said Keith Harper, an attorney with NARF. "Why wouldn't we wait?"

The prosecution rested its case May 30, and Harper predicted that the current trial, which is an intermediate step and will be followed by another, will be over within a month.

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

***

Trust plans a go

The Interior Department submitted the final version of its comprehensive trust management plan March 28 and is now moving forward with a key part: realigning functions within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Special Trustee.

Beginning June 2, nine teams of senior officials from the bureau and the office fanned out across Indian country to outline the time table and specifics of reorganization, according to Interior spokesman Dan DuBray.

"Reorganization is a key component, a major goal of [Interior] Secretary [Gale] Norton's [strategy for] improving trust management," DuBray said. "We're moving forward on this track at the same time as we have folks involved in the trial."

Tribal leaders have criticized the plan, saying it lacks details and trust standards.

NEXT STORY: Justice reworks e-grants system

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