Indian trust fund management targeted

The Interior Department's struggle to impose order on its Indian trust fund management featured prominently in the General Accounting Office's Performance and Accountability Series report released Jan. 17.

Interior administers the government's trust responsibilities to American Indians and native Alaskans, involving about $3 billion in trust funds and 54 million acres of Indian lands. The department has been accused of losing billions of dollars in American Indian assets through mismanagement of the system.

Although Interior has made some progress, the department still cannot assure account holders that balances are accurate and that assets are managed effectively, GAO found. It urged Congress to closely monitor Interior's progress by reviewing the department's annual performance plans and reports.

"Problems continue to plague the trust fund program despite recent improvements," the report states. "Our work has shown that the department needs to continue updating its trust fund management information systems and to ensure the accuracy of its trust fund records by correcting thousands of inaccurate, incomplete or outdated entries."

In 1999, Interior attempted to buy a new trust fund accounting system, but that effort was chided by members of Congress, American Indians and trust fund experts as ineffective and short-sighted. In October 2000, the department sought input from contractors to help it develop an architecture for managing the trust fund.

GAO also noted efforts by the National Park Service, an Interior bureau, to install commercial software to help it manage its facilities, which was pilot tested last year. Park Service officials told GAO that the system should provide an accurate and updated list of priority backlog maintenance projects, among other functions. GAO again urged Congress to keep a close eye on the system's implementation.

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