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In Government We Trust

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Promising to "square up" errant American Indian trust fund accounts, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stopped in Montana recently to dedicate a new computer system designed to streamline federal recordkeeping for reservation lands.

Babbitt and Kevin Gover, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, joined a host of other federal officials in Billings to fire up a pilot model of the new Trust Asset Accounting Management System, or TAAMS. Hopes are that the model will replace the government's antiquated system of tracking ownership and leases on Indian land held in federal trust.

"This is the first step toward a trust-management system that works for the tribes and for the individuals across Indian Country," Babbitt said. "I know we're on the road."

Keeping track of land transactions has in the past been an overwhelming challenge for the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs. In fact, the federal government is the target of a broad class-action suit filed in 1996 over the agency's mishandling of thousands of trust-fund accounts. Plaintiffs in the case, which went to trial June 10 in Washington, D.C., argue that the government can't account for about $2 billion of proceeds from leases and other transactions.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth found Babbitt, Gover, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt after they could not produce requested records within court deadlines. At the time, Lamberth said he had "never seen more egregious misconduct" by the federal government.

On the Flathead Reservation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have taken over many aspects of the federal land-trust program through an agreement reached with the BIA in the early 1990s. BIA Superintendent Ernest "Bud" Moran said his agency is still in the process of reviewing its records for the area, but they should be ready to move the data into the TAAMS system by mid-2000.

"I'm sure the deadline will be met," Moran said. "I do believe we'll be ready."

According to the BIA, more than $802 million passes through the nation's tribal trust program each year for accounts covering about 11 million acres of reservation land. Agency officials say they don't believe any of the unaccounted-for money was stolen, and that shoddy recordkeeping is the culprit.

But David L. Henry, who was fired from the BIA in 1986 after he revealed $7.5 million worth of financial problems in the Billings office alone, said in an interview that he believes at least some of the trust money has been taken through "petty graft" by federal employees and others who had access to the accounts.

"It was so open, so free, why the hell not?" said Henry, who is a certified public accountant. Henry contends that along with software, what also needs fixing "is the integrity of the people who handle the transactions."

"We might have a prettier, cleaner accounting system now, but there's nothing internally to keep people honest," he said. Not looking at the possibility of thefts, he added, "is the easy way out" for federal officials.

"Nobody on the government side wants to admit wrongdoing, and the Indian side knows that," he said.

Henry said even though his findings were later confirmed by other government officials, he was never able to get his job back.

"It was disrespectful to say it was wrong," he said of the whistleblowing that led to his dismissal.

The trust program was created in response to the 1887 Dawes Act, which Babbitt called "one of the most misguided laws in U.S. history," and other legislation that allocated land to individual tribal members and opened the door for non-Indians to attain reservation property previously held in common by tribes.

Over the years, most allotted-land titles have changed hands several times. In many cases the tracts are held jointly by hundreds or even thousands of owners, which has created an accounting nightmare for the BIA. The various allotment acts pushed more than half of the total reservation land in the nation out of tribal member hands.

"It was a dagger aimed at the heart of American Indian culture," Babbitt said, and the new computer system "will help restore the integrity" of reservations and their lands.

According to BIA Billings Area Director Keith Beartusk, some agency offices still maintain records by hand. In the Billings area office, two outdated computer systems have been used, one to track title records and the other to follow proceeds that must be paid to the legal owners.

BIA officials said the TAAMS system will undergo tests for 60 days before a final decision is made to expand it.

"This is about demonstrating that we can make this relationship work," Babbitt added. "Our obligation is to square up the accounts. We take that seriously, and we will. The dollar figures are manageable. The real issue is cleaning up the system."

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