A 'leadership vacuum'

Interior Department officials' misrepresentations about a high-profile software system designed to better manage the property of American Indians has left employees demoralized and possibly ready to jump ship, according to a recent report issued by a court- appointed monitor.

Joseph Kieffer III found that the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System is not fulfilling its court-ordered mission and that senior officials, including former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, have hidden TAAMS' problems from the court. TAAMS is Interior's key initiative to reform how the department manages American Indian lands.

TAAMS, however, is "at risk of abandonment," and Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs employees working on it and the other major projects associated with trust reform "may be just as close to calling it quits without quick management intervention," Kieffer wrote in his report. "They presently are demoralized and insecure about their ability to carry out the needed trust reform based on this leadership vacuum."

The court's involvement stems from a lawsuit filed on behalf of American Indians to force the federal government to properly manage lands it has held in trust for more than 100 years (see box).

First unveiled in 1999, TAAMS is designed to perform a number of functions, including managing land title records, interfacing with other department accounting systems and tracking day-to-day changes to held properties. Only the title module has been deployed to some degree, according to the 130-page report.

A spokesperson for the American Indians said the report verifies what they've known all along: that TAAMS doesn't work and that officials' claims to the contrary were false. "This isn't anything we didn't know," said Geoffrey Remple, an accountant on the plaintiffs' team.

"The TAAMS project is the largest fraud upon the judiciary by the executive branch in the history of the U.S. government," Remple said. "It's hard to imagine how much worse it can get. This is a disaster."

Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs spokespeople were unavailable for comment at press time. Interior's chief information officer, Daryl White, was attending a conference in Denver and was also unavailable.

Earlier this year, a memo from then-Bureau of Indian Affairs CIO Dom Nessi said that trust reform "is slowly but surely imploding." The memo became public when it was included in a court filing.

Remple said TAAMS is unsalvageable. "The stupidest thing you could try to do is try to save it," he said. "The best thing to do is scrap the entire thing" and "start from scratch," he said.

But David Orr, senior vice president of Applied Terravision Systems Inc., whose Artesia Data Systems Inc. subsidiary is developing TAAMS, said the system is about 98 percent complete and that plans are still in place for deployment this fall and early next year.

"The software product will do what the BIA needs," Orr said. "We feel like TAAMS will be a big success for BIA."

There are challenges, such as training about 3,000 employees to use the system and updating data stored in old systems or in hard copies, Orr said. However, "when the data gets converted and the cleanup is complete, the software will work very well for them."

Orr faulted those working for the court monitor for not visiting the Dallas-based company when compiling the report. "Why haven't they been to the development shop and met the people building it?" Orr asked. "I just don't think they spent enough time really looking at TAAMS."

Kieffer's summary of Interior's situation amounts to a Catch-22. If Interior starts all over with TAAMS, two years and tens of millions of dollars will have been wasted, he wrote.

On the other hand, "if they attempt to again modify TAAMS, there is [a] question whether the system will work," Kieffer said. "Had they informed the court of their problems openly and in a timely manner, this potential management and system failure might have been prevented."

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