A high-ranking Interior Department official who spoke candidly about the difficulties the agency faces in reforming its accounting system for Indian trust funds resigned Tuesday. Tom Slonaker, Interior's special trustee for Indian Affairs for the last two years, was given the choice to resign or be fired, according to a report from the Associated Press. The Associated Press said Slonaker's departure was due in part to his candor about the Interior Department's troubled Indian trust fund reform efforts. Neither Slonaker nor Interior officials were available for comment on Wednesday, but Interior Secretary Gale Norton wished Slonaker well and, in a statement, thanked him for his service to the department. Donna Erwin, now deputy special trustee for projects and operations at Interior, will take Slonaker's place. Slonaker testified July 25 before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that Interior's plan to account for individual Indian trust funds could not result in a full and proper historical accounting and did not satisfy the department's responsibilities to American Indians. Interior released a report earlier this month that estimated it will take 10 years and $2.4 billion to properly account for the funds. Trust fund accounts were set up more than a century ago to pay Indians for the use of their land. Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for sending checks to Indian trust beneficiaries, who 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. Slonaker resigned on the same day tribal leaders urged members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to sponsor legislation to create an independent commission before the end of the year to oversee the agency's troubled accounting system for individual Indian trust accounts.
"We are concerned with the tendency of [Interior] to await the outcome of litigation before doing anything. Time and time again we have bumped up against this wall, but there will always be litigation-it is part of the American system," said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota and a co-chair of a tribal task force on Indian trust reform, referring to Cobell's ongoing lawsuit, and two other lawsuits pending in the Supreme Court that were filed by the White Mountain Apache and the Navajo Nation. The Task Force on Indian Trust Reform was created last December after tribal leaders criticized Norton's plan to create a Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management within the Interior Department. Susan Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok tribe of California and co-chair of the task force, said during Tuesday's hearing that an independent commission with regulatory power is essential if the accounting system is to be improved. Masten said the 1994 American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act failed primarily because the special trustee's office was not given enough independent oversight authority to carry out reform. The special trustee reports directly to the Interior secretary. Interior officials at the Senate hearing said they agreed with tribal leaders on the creation of an oversight commission, but did not want to give the commission regulatory powers. Steven Griles, deputy secretary of Interior, said that although private industries are subject to regulatory bodies, applying the same regulatory standards to public entities would be unfair. According to Masten and Hall, Interior would prefer that the commission merely act in an advisory capacity so that it doesn't have any power to sanction the department.