Poor training puts Indian trust fund accounting at risk

The Interior Department still has not trained employees properly on how to handle Indian trust records, putting the agency's trust fund accounting system at further risk, according to a new report.

Training on how to manage trust records is sporadic and fails to offer Interior employees practical and comprehensive guidance on how to adequately identify and archive trust documents, concluded Alan Balaran in an investigative report on the agency's effort to improve training on trust recordkeeping. Balaran is overseeing a six-year-old lawsuit involving the government's management of individual trust accounts for Indians.

"In the final analysis, the Office of Trust Records curricula add to the grievous perception that trust records deserve no more special care than an agency personnel file, a payroll record or a requisition for paper clips," the report said.

Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs handles roughly 300,000 trust accounts and is responsible for sending checks to Indian trust beneficiaries. Beneficiaries rely on trust funds for basic living necessities. 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.

Nearly three years ago, the agency pledged to work with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to improve training for employees who maintain trust documents. Balaran reviewed the Interior Department's quarterly and monthly reports on improving trust fund management for his investigation of the agency's training program.

Since 2000, Interior and NARA have provided training on trust fund recordkeeping to thousands of agency employees, but the briefings have not been mandatory and rarely focus specifically on handling trust documents, Balaran said. The curriculum has tended to focus on the organizational structure of the Office of Trust Records and policies on federal recordkeeping in general, "but not on the critical requirements unique to trust recordkeeping," according to Balaran.

One 85-page training manual on recordkeeping prepared by the Office of Trust Records devoted only nine pages to trusts and trust records, Balaran's report said, while a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation prepared by NARA mentioned trust records only twice. Training materials prepared by the Office of Trust Records failed to include a definition of trust records, Balaran said. And the Interior Department's periodic status reports issued between November 2000 and 2002 did not mention trust fund training for employees at all.

The Interior Department did not return phone calls about Balaran's report.

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