Indian tribes reject Interior’s trust fund reorganization plan

The Interior Department's proposal to create a new office overseeing the management of Indian trust funds will undermine tribal authority and will only add more bureaucratic layers to an already mismanaged program, Native American leaders said Wednesday at a House hearing. In November, Interior Secretary Gale Norton unveiled plans to create a new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management to oversee reform of the department's troubled trust accounting system. The new bureau would consolidate the duties currently performed by several offices, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But some tribal leaders and other members of the Native American community are worried the reorganization will weaken the BIA and threaten the ability of tribes to manage and operate trust programs. "We have experienced that non-BIA programs are zealously guarded by the agencies operating them," said D. Fred Matt, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. "The effect is that tribes have been stymied in their endeavors to manage federal functions not located in the BIA." Trust fund accounts were set up more than a century ago to compensate Native Americans for the use of their land. Currently, the BIA manages about 1,400 tribal accounts and 300,000 individual trust accounts. The agency is responsible for sending checks to Indian trust beneficiaries, who rely on trust funds for basic living necessities. "We are very concerned that taking responsibilities, manpower, authority, prestige and massive resources away from the BIA, while creating an entirely new, expensive, out-of-reach bureaucracy, does nothing to better the lives of our Indian people back home on our reservations," said Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Indian tribe. Allegations of mismanagement of the BIA trust accounting system have plagued the agency for years, culminating in a 1996 lawsuit filed against Interior by Elouise Cobell, founder and current chair of the Blackfeet National Bank. "Among its flaws, it [the proposal] would merge the tribal trust with the Individual Indian Management trust under one entity, ignoring the trusts' two distinctly different functions, constituencies and histories," Cobell told the House Committee on Resources. "This plan will undermine-not protect-tribal sovereignty." Cobell suggested stripping Interior's authority and placing management of the trust funds temporarily in the care of a court-appointed receiver. A receiver takes into custody the property or funds of others during litigation. According to Norton, putting trust fund management in the hands of a separate organization within Interior was the "superior" solution at the moment, although she said she was open to other proposals for improving trust fund management. "I think that on some level, we need to have leadership that is separate from the BIA," Norton said. "Whether or not trust fund management stays inside the Interior Department, there needs to be enough departure from the current organization to have real reform." The president's fiscal 2003 budget proposal seeks $84 million for trust fund management. Under the reorganization plan, an assistant secretary who has not yet been named will lead the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management, which will consolidate the functions of several offices within Interior, including the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians and the Office of Historical Trust Accounting. Management consulting firm Electronic Data Systems recommended that Interior create a central office to handle trust fund reform and establish greater accountability for trust management.

Despite the BIA's mismanagement of the trust funds, the tribes are reluctant to give another agency or office authority over the money, Norton said. "It is the part of the bureaucracy that they are most attached to," she said. Under the proposal for the new office, the BIA would focus on other missions, such as providing tribal services and helping tribes with economic development and education.

Norton, who faces contempt of court charges in the Cobell lawsuit, said Interior has been working with the tribes to hammer out a compromise on trust management reform. Members of the Native American community, including the National Congress of American Indians, criticized Interior for devising the reorganization without consulting tribes. The group is the oldest and largest tribal government organization in the country. Recent events involving a court-imposed shutdown of Interior's computer systems have also fueled the controversy over the department's management of the Indian trust funds. In December, U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered Interior to disconnect nearly all of its computers from the Internet, saying the agency's inadequate information security system put information on Indian trust funds at risk. Although Lamberth later said Interior could put systems not connected to BIA financial information back online, about 90 percent of the department still does not have access to the Internet. As a result, about 43,000 people did not receive trust fund checks in December.

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