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Cobell v Norton

March 16, 2001


Memo Disclosed by Justice Department Says Implementation Plans
Are Based on "Wishful Thinking" and "Posturing for the Court"

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The BIA's senior official in charge of overhauling individual Indian trust account data management has admitted that the Interior Department's trust reform efforts are "slowly, but surely imploding" and that an implementation plan submitted to a federal judge was based on "wishful thinking and rosy projections."

The extraordinary revelation is contained in a memo written by BIA Chief Information Officer Dominic Nessi and sent to Special Trustee Thomas Slonaker. The memo, dated Feb. 23, 2001 - the same day a federal appeals court in Washington dealt a stinging defeat to Interior and Justice - was included in Court papers filed late yesterday by the Justice Department.

Justice lawyers said the Nessi memo raises "concerns" and asked for more time to reply to a legal motion by Indian plaintiffs in trust reform litigation, Cobell v. Norton.

"This really shows what it's like to be a Native person and deal with these issues," said Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff. "Native people often think these problems are local. Then we find out the lying goes all the way to the top. For five years these people have perpetrated a fraud on the Court. We would never have gotten to the bottom of it if it weren't for this lawsuit. Thank God we have the Courts. If they're going to do this to the Court, you can imagine what they've done to Native people for 120 years. The only way we're going to stop this is if we have personal sanctions for these people."

A Court-appointed Special Master, Alan Balaran, recommended last month that U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth proceed with a contempt trial for Nessi and nine others at Interior for retaliating against a BIA employee, Mona Infield. Infield, a GS 14 trust records specialist in Albuquerque, had provided evidence to the Court that trust reform was a sham and that a highly touted, $50 million data management system headed by Nessi was a failure.

The Justice Department is currently fighting attempts by the Indian plaintiffs to depose Nessi and other BIA officials on the Infield retaliation issue.

Nessi and other senior Interior officials, including Secretary Gale Norton, have testified repeatedly in Court and to Congress that trust reform and the new Trust Assets and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) were a success. Norton testified to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Feb. 28 that "much progress has been made" on trust reform and TAAMS. Interior's trust reform efforts "present huge challenges," Norton said, "but there is no doubt that they can be concluded satisfactorily."

Interior Department officials are scheduled to testify to Congress next week on their request for $80 million for 2001 for trust reform efforts.

In his memo, Nessi said that the High-Level Implementation Plan (HLIP), the trust reform plan Interior and Justice vouched for to Judge Lamberth, "was built on wishful thinking and rosy projections. No in-depth analysis was performed before the development of the HLIP. Instead, posturing for the Court and between DoI organizations seemed to be the primary influence on objectives and timeframes.

"This HLIP constructed milestones based on no analysis and now we are trying to live with impossible expectations. Trust has been neglected for decades in DoI. It cannot be corrected in a couple of years.As Yogi Berra once said, 'If you don't know where you are going, you end up somewhere else.' I believe that quote describes trust reform to a tee."

Cobell v. Norton was filed in June 1996 to force Interior and the Treasury Department to reform more than a century of gross mismanagement of the individual Indian trust account system. An estimated $90 billion in revenues from Indian lands have poured into the trust system since 1887. The government has conceded, and the Courts have ruled, that Interior and Treasury do not know how much money should be in the accounts and have no way of knowing because they have destroyed or lost the documents.

Interior, Treasury and Justice claimed throughout a nine-week trial on trust reform issues in 1999 that their reform plan and TAAMS were sound and that Judge Lamberth was overstepping his authority by continuing judicial oversight of their efforts for five years. On Feb. 23, the day Nessi wrote his memo to Slonaker, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld Lamberth unanimously.

To read Nessi's memo, go to


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