Getting their due
- By Megan Lisagor
- Nov 03, 2002
Arizona state Highway 101 runs for nine miles along the western border of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community reservation, a community carved out of 53,500 acres of desert near Scottsdale, Ariz. On that land, Salt River, which is home to about 6,500 American Indians, lets local farmers grow cotton, onions and potatoes. The Salt River Sand and Rock Co. mines resources from the river. Pavilions, an open-air shopping center, sits just off 101.
For those and other ventures, Salt River receives about $5 million in leasing fees from federal and state governments, farmers and businesses as part of a century-old agreement that allows tribes to charge for use of their land. To manage the money, the Pima-Maricopa community developed a computer program in 1982 that accurately tracks accounts and cuts monthly checks for almost 4,000 landowners.
It proved to be a wise investment.
Lorna Klose, a tribal member who receives timely payments thanks to the program, thinks so. "Before, you used to come in, ask for an inventory, and it could be six months before you got it," Klose said about keeping tabs on her account. "Now you could call and have it that afternoon."
Since the late 1990s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been responsible for handling the $1 billion in fees that oil and gas companies, ranchers, farmers and other businesses pay tribes annually for using some 56 million acres that American Indians received in treaties with the U.S. government. Yet the agency has failed to create a financial management system that works. The inability of the Interior Department, which oversees BIA, to account for the money and subsequently to build the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) has resulted in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.
"The search for the one-size-fits-all solution has, in many ways, been the search for the Holy Grail," said Daniel DuBray, a spokesman for Interior. "The idea of the one universal software is no longer considered a viable option."
A more viable option, Interior information technology officials believe, could be systems such as the one Salt River operates. Last month, a federal IT team traveled to Scottsdale to see a demonstration of the system and assess whether it could serve as a model for what might eventually replace the controversial TAAMS.
"Ours isn't perfect," Salt River President Ivan Makil said in a September interview, sitting in his office on the reservation. "I don't know of any systems that are perfect, but there are good ideas."
A Broken Trust
The story of the failed effort to keep track of American Indians' royalties began in the late 1800s, when the federal government established a trust fund and assumed responsibility for leasing lands and paying revenues to individual and tribal accounts.
BIA manages the bulk of the work and has delegated the accounting to its 12 regional and 85 remote offices. For decades, most of its field agents kept records by hand. Today, much of that data has been lost, with questions remaining about what is due to American Indians.
"I can remember back when I was a little girl, the farmers would literally pay their leases at their houses," Klose recalled. "Cars parked around a man calling out names. A person would get a check, but you didn't know if you were getting the right amount."
BIA was notorious for its poor bookkeeping. In 1996, Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of 500,000 individual Indian trust beneficiaries, claiming the U.S. government owed them as much as $10 billion because of its neglect.
Hoping to fix the accounting mess, Interior launched the project to develop TAAMS in 1998. To get started, it awarded a contract to Artesia Data Systems Inc. for commercial software that the department intended to modify to its own specifications.
In 2000, Interior unveiled TAAMS, which replaced two mainframe legacy systems: the Land Records Information System, which tracked data such as land ownership, and the Integrated Records Management System, which held various data, including information on oil and gas leases and royalties.
The department was so optimistic that it put language into its fiscal 2000 funding agreements with self-governance tribes, requiring them to use TAAMS once the system was completed.
Salt River refused to comply with the request and instead agreed to switch to the multimillion-dollar system "as soon as it was as good or better than ours," tribal chief staff attorney Charleen Greer said.
The decision proved propitious. TAAMS ran into numerous development problems (see box, Page 27). The most recent, which ultimately put the system on a course to being shut down, came in December 2001 when U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered Interior to disconnect from the Internet after a court-appointed investigator showed how easy it was for a hired computer security firm to hack into TAAMS and set up a dummy account. The firm broke into the system twice.
In January, Interior supplied a list of "problems, issues and concerns," including inadequate resources, a need for consistent project management and security deficiencies, in its eighth quarterly report to the court, one in a series of updates required by Lamberth. "TAAMS efforts have been handicapped by a perceived need for a 'quick fix' that prevented sufficient detailed information gathering," an official wrote.
The conclusion drew ire from tribal leaders, who had long-complained about Interior's lack of communication. "You don't go and create a system without talking to tribes first," Makil said.
Interior has now abandoned its original concept of TAAMS, officials said. The system's titles portion, which maintains land data and is running in four regions with encouraging results, is still an option, but further deployment has been indefinitely delayed, according to the eighth report.
Interior is identifying systems that could provide a solution and released a request for information in July to solicit ideas from trust-related companies. One system under consideration by the department's Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians is Salt River's.
"There's a real interest to listen to these tribes and find a solution," DuBray said.
The Salt River Solution
Salt River takes a utilitarian approach to trust management: A winning system is a system that works.
A demonstration of the program in September began with a Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentation in a conference room where aerial maps of the reservation hang on the walls. This much was immediately clear: There are no technological wizards behind the system. About a 10-person team of tribal members and outside experts operate it, including Florence "Flo" Gates, who oversees the realty department; Cathy Martinez, who runs the economic development department; and Eric Vimmerstedt, who manages the financial department.
There is no breakthrough technology, either. The system is composed of a patchwork of databases and a simple, established process. Gates and Martinez's departments keep track of member demographics, landownership, allotments, probates and leases. After they finish inputting information into Microsoft Access databases, the system creates an ASCII payout file and drops it into a financial database. The trust team meets twice to solve problems that come up. Vimmerstedt cuts the checks.
When errors occur — and errors do occur — Salt River pays for the mistake. "That should be a guiding principle of trust reform," said Jacob Moore, the tribe's special assistant on congressional and legislative affairs.
Salt River also seeks technical help. Chief information officer Suchindran "Chat" Chatterjee came from Dancris Telecommunications LLC six months ago; management information systems manager Don Balint came from the Arizona State Compensation Fund six years ago.
In the server room, where the 70.1 degrees Fahrenheit climate was a stark contrast to the 107.8 degrees outside, Chatterjee talked about security. "The firewall has moved here," he said, noting that a routine penetration test was scheduled. The IT shop is in the basement and, like the system, is more functional than fancy.
"It's very simple for us and the thing is it can be very simple," Makil said. "It works for our tribal members, and that's how a system should work. What good is any system if it doesn't do a job and do it in a way people feel comfortable?"
Tribal realty specialist Virginia Loring finds it helpful. "It's really handy," Loring said, plugging in demographics. "Isn't that neat? I think so."
The operators' intimate knowledge and support is key, said information systems expert Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc. "If people follow procedures and processes more carefully, if there's more investment, if they care more, if they pay attention, they're going to do a better job than a larger organization," Suss said.
"We take a human approach," Greer said. "That is a much harder thing for a bureaucracy to do."
"No one knows the tribes better than the tribes," added Makil, wearing a dress shirt one shade lighter than his turquoise ring.
Now, it seems, Interior officials may take the same view. The Pima-Maricopa community extended an open invitation that, until last month, was met with no response, Makil said.
"We kept after them and after them to try and get them to understand that tribes were developing systems because they had to, to keep up with the times," he said. "Look at what's out there. An assessment of needs should drive the [solution]. There are plenty of software programs around."
A Model for Reform?
In addition to Salt River, other self-governance tribes — about 220 nationwide, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Nation in Montana and Hoopa Valley Tribe in California — have trust management systems. The level of sophistication varies.
Interior officials said they support tribes developing their own systems, largely because of the economic impact it can have on reservations.
"We are working closely with tribes and linking them to specialists in the federal government and the private sector to create 100,000 new jobs in Indian Country by the year 2008," Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb told Federal Computer Week in a statement last month. "The information technology sector opens a number of these doors, providing a real opportunity to create jobs and build sustainable economic progress for tribal and individual Indian-owned enterprises."
Salt River, for instance, could consult with other tribes, helping them to build systems on a contract basis, according to DuBray. The community is "really the unique situation," he said. "There is a belief there that it might serve a nationwide purpose."
It's important to note that Salt River "put in a lot of their own money," said Keith Harper, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, representing the Cobell class-action suit. "Not all tribes can do that. There's a [desire] for direct service. Indian Country ought not to be forced to pay for the failures of the federal government."
For those who choose the Salt River way, "what we want to do, to the greatest extent possible, is support these tribes," DuBray said.
The Bush administration has asked Congress for $10.6 billion for Interior for fiscal year 2003, a $300 million increase from fiscal 2002, with additional money directed to trust reform.
But it's going to take more than funding, tribal members stressed.
"It's really about respect," Makil said. "Some tribes have the expertise because they developed it; some don't and they need help. I see [BIA] more in the future as monitoring their trust responsibilities rather than having to physically do it. Tribes will do it themselves."
Cobell is of the same mind. "Once they get their capabilities built, it would be much more effective for them to control their own assets," she said.
For now, Interior must submit a revised strategy for reform to the U.S. court by Jan. 6, 2003. The plaintiffs have asked Lamberth to strip the trust fund from the department and place it in receivership. Also at stake is a historical accounting of individual and tribal accounts, which the department has said will cost $2.4 billion and will take several years to complete. Some lawmakers are pushing the federal government to settle. The trial, which has slapped Interior Secretary Gale Norton, McCaleb and others with contempt charges, resumes May 1, 2003. Most department officials declined to be interviewed, citing their roles as active defendants in the case.
In the interim, they continue to analyze what solutions hold promise. Neither the titles portion of TAAMS nor Salt River's system is in the lead, according to DuBray. "It is possible that it would be opened up to other contenders," he said.
There remains much to explore. For starters, why it takes Salt River just five business days at the most to accomplish what Interior can spend months on: the fundamental obligation to get American Indians their money.
"Sometimes it's the smaller entities, closer to the front line, that are better suited to design the information systems that they need," said John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of PSComm LLC, a consulting firm that advises government agencies on how to use technology.
"Bottom line: We produce," concluded Makil, who retires next month after 12 years as tribal president. "We don't have a choice. We have to."