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Reagan Aide Named Indian Trust Fund Manager

November 20, 2001|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A Reagan-era official who advocated private accounting of $500 million a year in historically mismanaged royalties from Indian land will help craft the government's accounting system.

Ross Swimmer, the former chief of the Cherokee Nation and head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Reagan, will shape the new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management, created last week by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton.

"It's an absolutely enormous task and you either have to be masochistic or really enjoy public service" to take the job, Swimmer said.

The new bureau's birth came under the threat of contempt of court citations against Norton and nearly 40 other past and present officials for their failure to reform the trust fund, which manages mining, grazing, logging and other royalties from Indian land.

For more than a century, the funds have been mismanaged. A class-action lawsuit on behalf of 300,000 Native Americans claims more than $10 billion has been squandered.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to determine how much it owes the Native Americans and to fix its accounting system, but neither has happened, according to reports by a court-appointed watchdog.

Frustrated with the progress, Lamberth last month called Interior's actions "clearly contemptuous" of his court orders.

In response, Norton moved trust fund management from the Bureau of Indian Affairs into a new, separate bureau, which Swimmer will shape. It remains to be seen whether he stays to head the bureau after the two- or three-month transition, he said.

He will work with fellow Oklahoman Neal McCaleb, who heads the Indian bureau.

Swimmer has a background as a banker, investment advisor and Indian law practitioner, in addition to his work with the Cherokee Nation and the Indian affairs bureau. He also works as a consultant, helping tribes build power plants.

As Reagan's Indian affairs director, he proposed turning over part of the mismanaged Indian trust fund to private contractors, a move opposed by Native American tribes and later forbidden by Congress.

Swimmer said Monday that privatization should not be ruled out as a way to repair the trust fund.

Dennis Gingold, attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said appointing Swimmer, who failed to fix the fund during the Reagan administration, is unacceptable and "shows further disdain for the Indian trust beneficiaries."

Ron Allen, vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, said Swimmer's support for tribal self-government will be useful in his new job.

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