In the course of carrying out major trust reform initiatives mandated by Congress in the American Indian Trust Management Reform Act of 1994, the Department of the Interior created a new structure within the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) to administer the Indian Trust. Part of this restructuring included the addition of Fiduciary Trust Officers (FTOs) to provide trust services directly to individual and tribal beneficiaries across Indian Country. Many of you know, and value, the services provided to beneficiaries by these FTOs. You contact them for information regarding your trust accounts and encounter their efforts primarily on Indian trust issues as they solve problems regarding revenue derived from trust resources such as oil and gas, timber, and grazing and compensation received through legislative settlements. The FTOs work with other bureaus of the Department of the Interior, other federal agencies such as Social Security and Veteran Affairs, as well as state and local government offices on behalf of you and your members. FTOs are part of OST Field Operations and have also been working in your communities, schools, educational organizations, and with national Indian advocacy groups such as the National Congress of American Indians to bring financial empowerment tools and education to Indian beneficiaries. This is a new initiative to offer Indian beneficiaries tools they can use in managing trust income and protecting trust assets. FTOs advocate for beneficiaries by cutting across bureaucracies, navigating the halls of government, and creating partnerships with tribes and other entities that have similar objectives.
OST is releasing interviews with local FTO about why these individuals became FTOs, what drives FTOs to do the work they do, and how they serve the communities they work in.
The seventh interview of this series is with Anadarko Agency FTO Mitchell Stephens (OST Southern Plains, Eastern Oklahoma, and Eastern Region).
Why did you choose to become an FTO with OST?
When I accepted the FTO position in 2004, it allowed me to expand the use of skills I had acquired over the previous 30 years of career experience, which began in 1974 with a position in the trust department of the First National Bank of Fort Worth, Texas. Over the years, much of my employment background has been working with new and existing clients. For the FTO position, trust is important, but client service is essential.
What makes FTO services valuable to beneficiaries?
FTOs provide services that never existed in Indian Country. Before the FTO positions were created, beneficiaries were left to their own devices to resolve issues. The FTO position answered that difficulty by providing local people to intercede and find answers to beneficiary’s questions. FTOs are client focused and provide a personal service contact that can reach across DOI program and agency boundaries to resolve a beneficiary’s issue or request.
FTOs have a lot of duties. Which responsibilities come into play most often working with the beneficiaries at this office?
At the Anadarko Agency, in addition to the enormous number of beneficiary issues, we also support seven tribes as the administrator of their tribal trust accounts.
While assisting beneficiaries with their various issues, we discuss the benefits of having a will prepared. To that end, we partnered with Oklahoma City University [OCU] Law School and Oklahoma Indian Legal Services [OILS] to host six will clinics last year at the Anadarko Agency. We are also very involved with the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] Social Services group assisting with the various issue that occur with the management and administration of supervised beneficiary Individual Indian Money [IIM] accounts.
The FTO provides a one-stop point of contact for all Indian beneficiary concerns. Their issues include probate status questions, oil and gas royalties, and farming and grazing land management issues. IIM account management also includes beneficiary address updates, account balance inquiries, and distribution requests that are generated from the 12,000 beneficiary IIM accounts serviced at the Anadarko Agency. The FTO position interacts with the BIA, ONRR [Office of Natural Resource Revenue], and BLM [Bureau of Land Management] as an advocate for the beneficiary when a beneficiary’s issue involves these various DOI programs.
The FTO also interacts with each of our seven tribes to provide an annual tribal account investment review, which ensures that each tribe is aware of its tribal account’s investments and strategies. Additionally, the FTO works with the tribes to insure that OST has a current list of authorized signatures on file and that this list of signatures is supported by a tribal resolution. The list specifies those tribal individuals authorized to request and receive tribal account information from OST.
Most currently, since December 2012, we have been overwhelmed responding to calls about the Cobell Settlement. Inquiries include requests to provide a beneficiary with his or her old IIM account number from a per capita distribution received when he or she turned 18. We also have had an enormous number of requests for information to support Cobell claims as heirs to estates. For these requests, we provide a copy of their Individual Tribal Interest (ITI) reports and the probate orders from which they had inherited.
The FTO is the centralized local OST manager with the responsibility to respond to senior management requests.
Have you any advice for beneficiaries so that they get the most out of their trust fund relationship with OST??
The FTO and OST staff provides a one-stop shop to respond to beneficiary issues.
We advise beneficiaries of the importance of managing their IIM funds wisely. We also counsel minors, who are turning 18 years of age, to manage wisely the funds to which they will now have access. Some of these minors’ accounts have significant once-in-a-lifetime balances.
We counsel beneficiaries about the advantages of receiving their IIM account distributions via direct deposit or a debit card.
We also advise beneficiaries about the benefits of having a will by making them aware of how their trust land will be probated and distributed via AIPRA [American Indian Probate Reform Act] if they do not make a will.
How many people are on your staff and what are their duties??
The Anadarko Agency, fully staffed, would include an FTO, a Trust Accounts Manager, four Accounting Technicians, and an Account Maintenance Technician. We currently have two vacant staff positions. These two vacancies include one Accounting Technician and the Account Maintenance Technician.
The Anadarko Agency services seven tribes and 12,000 IIM accounts. The OST staff responds daily to the tremendous volume of beneficiary IIM account issues that are generated from walk-in and telephone beneficiary contacts. We also receive a large number of Service Center Incident queries that are forwarded to the agency for resolution from the Trust Beneficiary Call Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The OST staff is also responsible for encoding various BIA work products. Some of these activities include processing Kennerly restrictions, encumbrance plans, supervised account distribution plans, refund vouchers, and sundry other IIM and tribal account transaction activities.
While each staff member is knowledgeable about all required duties, they have become specialized over time. For example, our Trust Account Manager, before joining OST, had a five-year background with BIA Social Services. This is extremely beneficial when dealing with OST’s functional responsibilities for supervised accounts.
How did you get involved in trust activities and what special skills did you bring to the job??
I started my career in the Air Force as an accounting and finance specialist in 1970. After my Air Force service ended in 1974, I accepted a position in the trust department of the First National Bank of Fort Worth. I worked my way up to be a Trust Operations supervisor. I then transferred over to the trust real estate property management area where I was promoted to an Administrative Trust Officer position. I was recruited in 1979 by Citizens National Bank of Wichita Falls for their Trust Operations Officer position.
Next, because of associations developed in 1976 during a trust accounting systems conversion while working at The First National Bank of Fort Worth, I was recruited in 1980 by that trust accounting software company, National Computer Systems. I filled a Regional Trust Consultant position that supported a new trust accounting application they were rolling out. This led to other opportunities that encompassed the next 22 plus years in positions of regional and national responsibilities with companies in the trust accounting systems industry and in the New York City based security information/financial data arena. The experience gained in my prior work history, supported by education — a bachelor of business administration degree in management from Southwestern Union College in 1976, and NASDQ Series 6 and a Texas Series 63 – Securities License — has been a tremendous resource for me to draw on to provide the beneficiary/client service that is vital for the FTO position.
What’s most challenging about being an FTO?
I’m sure it varies agency to agency. I started my OST career in August 2004 as the FTO at the Horton Agency in Horton, Kansas. I transferred to the Anadarko Agency in Anadarko, Oklahoma, in December 2005. The Anadarko Agency is a very large and active agency. Our biggest challenge is dealing with the tremendous volume of beneficiary issues and requests that are generated from the seven tribes and the 12,000 IIM accounts that are serviced by the Anadarko Agency. A recent additional challenge is responding to the tremendous volume of beneficiary requests for information to support claims as heirs under the Cobell Settlement.
What has been your greatest accomplishment/achievement as the FTO in the communities you serve??
Working with our beneficiaries and being able to provide positive responses to their individual issues and seeing their reactions when we resolve their issues is the most rewarding aspect of the FTO position. Over the years, we have been able to develop working relationships with Oklahoma Indian Legal Services and the Oklahoma City University Law School. These relationships have led to these organizations providing free Indian will clinics for our beneficiaries. Last year, the Anadarko Agency hosted six will clinics with OILS and OCU Law School each conducting three. Being able to provide this service has been an incredible positive development for beneficiaries.
To access a list of all FTOs, go to www.doi.gov/ost/fto.