IG: Trust reform undermined

The Interior Department's "bunker mentality" has impeded progress in the ongoing struggle for trust reform and has made it impossible for employees to work together, according to the department's inspector general.

The failure of a massive computer system and the destruction of e-mail messages were the results of "an environment fraught with second-guessing and personal attack," not personal misconduct, IG Earl Devaney wrote in a report released this week.

Interior has held American Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years, leasing the properties and processing revenue earned from farming and drilling. The Trust Asset and Accounting Management System was designed to take over the job of distributing payments to more than 300,000 beneficiaries.

Devaney's investigation stemmed from allegations made by plaintiffs in a six-year-old, class-action lawsuit who claim the department lost or misplaced billions of dollars that are due to landowners and their descendants.

"The...litigation has so embroiled and angered those involved that they cannot see or think clearly in order to make a correct decision," Devaney said. "Every effort is thwarted by internal discord, distrust and a dysfunctional reluctance to assume ownership."

A particular example of the turf war is the friction between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of the Special Trustee, Devaney noted.

Case in point: Thomas Slonaker, special trustee for American Indians, resigned two months after Court Monitor Joseph Kieffer III found Interior Secretary Gale Norton wasn't giving Slonaker the support he needed to fulfill his oversight duties, mandated by a 1994 law.

The department subsequently rejected the report, but as of July 30, Slonaker was out, a move that caught the attention of Congress.

"What I find most troubling are the stated reasons for Mr. Slonaker's recent resignation," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote in an Aug. 2 letter to Norton. "In various reports, Mr. Slonaker has been quoted as saying, 'I was given the choice of retiring or firing' and 'Things have not been going well in terms of trust reform, but it's not always the message they want to hear.'"

The departure is an urgent signal that real and immediate change is critical, McCain said.

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