Interior defends Indian trust reform

In the wake of accusations that American Indian trust reform management was "imploding," Interior Department officials defended their efforts at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

While acknowledging a history of problems, Thomas Slonaker, special trustee for American Indians, said that trust reform is making progress, given the complexity involved. Slonaker was speaking before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Interior Subcommittee.

Interior administers the government's trust responsibilities to American Indians and native Alaskans, including 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.

A major component of Interior's trust reform relies on installing a computer system — the Trust Asset Accounting and Management System (TAAMS) — that can keep track of land titles and leases, as well as work with the department's already-deployed Trust Fund Accounting System.

In late December, the land title portion of TAAMS went live at four Bureau of Indian Affairs regional offices, Slonaker said, and a steering committee determined that a leasing module will be ready for deployment in one region by the end of May. A schedule for deployment to all 12 BIA regions is being developed, he said.

But for TAAMS to work, the data it uses must be reliable. BIA is undertaking a complex "data cleanup" effort to enable trust documents — some stored in boxes, some in outdated computer systems — to be accounted for and verified, said Sharon Blackwell, deputy commissioner of BIA.

Slonaker said, "Until the historical data required to be accessed is properly corrected, the TAAMS system cannot provide fully accurate and complete data output on which to make payments and reports to account holders."

"I am mindful that there are skeptics," Blackwell said. "However, I remain confident that when completed, TAAMS will be a comprehensive, user-designed and thus user-friendly system for modernizing trust management activities in the department."

In a memo to Slonaker, dated Feb. 23 and made public in court filings two weeks ago, Dom Nessi, BIA's chief information officer, expressed pessimism at Interior's ability to clean up trust management.

"As a rule, I try not to make dire predictions, but I am afraid that in this case, I have no choice," Nessi wrote. "I believe that trust reform is slowly, but surely imploding at this point in time."

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