Hill, Indians slam Interior's trust fund system

Senators, trust fund experts and American Indians today blasted an Interior Department plan to spend as much as $60 million on a new computer system to improve the collection, tracking and disbursement of money from the Indian trust fund program.

Donald Gray, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in setting up commercial trusts, told a joint hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that a "clueless" Interior should not be given responsibility to set up the system to manage the trust, which American Indians say has led to the loss of billions of dollars in trust fund payments over the years.

"You should not and cannot try to operate on yourself," Gray said. "People go out and buy a system and put it into place. What's missing here is first you have to sit down and think. You can't just go out and buy a software system."

He said Interior should set up an independent body to oversee the trust funds. That governmental body, he said, should then contract out the work to revamp the trust funds. He testified that for about $10 million or $15 million, the department could hire consultants to step in and figure out exactly how to permanently fix the system and make it work for American Indians.

Interior acknowledges that it has managed the trust fund poorly and says it plans to improve the management of the funds by building a new computer system called the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System.

A pilot version of TAAMS was unveiled last month in Montana and will be tested for several months. Following the test, Interior will decide whether to recommend deploying TAAMS to manage the trust fund.

The General Accounting Office, however, released a report in April that concluded TAAMS was inadequate. "Interior faces an unnecessarily high risk that the service will not meet its general business and specific performance needs, and it lacks the means for dealing with this risk," the report said.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said Interior is "in denial" about the trust fund and its ability to manage it. "It would seem to me that one of the first steps is admitting you've got a hell of a problem," he said.

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