Report: Interior trust reform 'dismantled'

Politicking and finger-pointing within the Interior Department continue to impede Indian trust reform, according to a court monitor's disparaging 86-page report issued Thursday.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton hasn't given Special Trustee for American Indians Thomas Slonaker the support he needs to fulfill his oversight duties mandated by a 1994 law, wrote Court Monitor Joseph Kieffer III in his seventh report to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth.

"The Office of the Special Trustee is involved in its own 'Groundhog Day,' " Kieffer said, referring to a film in which events keep repeating themselves. "The trust reform oversight system has again been dismantled."

Most recently, Norton questioned Slonaker's job performance in an April 17 memorandum. "Frankly, your performance to date does not justify expansion of your responsibilities," she wrote. "Instead, you should be focusing your efforts on strengthening your execution of tasks already assigned to you."

Kieffer offered another view: "Perhaps his idea of leading trust reform with true line authority is not a bad solution." Norton, meanwhile, has charged Deputy Secretary Steve Griles with that task.

The court must "correct this historical breach of trust," Kieffer concluded.

Interior has held American Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years, leasing the properties and processing revenues earned from farming and drilling.

A group of beneficiaries filed a class-action lawsuit in 1996, alleging that poor bookkeeping has prevented landowners and their descendants from determining their account balances. The plaintiffs estimate as much as $10 billion in lost or missing funds.

Citing security concerns, Lamberth last December ordered Interior to disconnect from the Internet to protect data maintained under its Trust Asset and Accounting Management System.

"Defendants do not seem to understand that the secretary of the Interior and the special trustee are joined at the hip," Kieffer said. "If neither can be trusted to bring about trust reform in each other's eyes, the plaintiffs will have again proved their case without even lifting a hand."

In her own report submitted Wednesday, Norton updated the court on Interior's efforts.

Since the shutdown, about 89 percent of the department has gone back online. The remaining systems, including those maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, are responsible for much of the agency's trust operations.

Norton noted that the special trustee recently has come under fire from Special Master Alan Balaran and said the matter is under review.

"If trust reform and reorganization are to succeed, it is imperative that [Interior] senior management officials approach these challenges as a team," Norton said.

Many of that team's positions, however, remain unfilled. Two key department IT specialist positions — as well as BIA's chief information officer and director of the office of information resources management — are open.

"This Shakespearean tragedy has no end," Kieffer said.

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