Alarmed by the inability of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to account for $95 million, almost 10 cents of every dollar it spent last year, the Bush administration announced yesterday it was dispatching a special management team to New Mexico to oversee the agency's finances.

The action came after a joint investigation by the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Interior reported "severe and wide-ranging problems" at the BIA's financial headquarters in Albuquerque.

"There's no suitable accounting oversight, no rational financial management system . . . . The current system is like an ATM {cash machine} for BIA employees," said one OMB official.

"The way I characterized it {is} . . . . We've got a bad system, brim full of bad data, run by people who are inadequately trained," acknowledged William Bettenberg, a deputy assistant interior secretary.

Probers found that 12,000 individuals, some not even BIA employees, had access to the BIA's financial records. In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, those people made "over 500,000 adjustments" to the agency's accounts, according to a joint OMB-Interior announcement. That meant that "for every entry, someone came in and changed it 10 times . . . ," the OMB official said.

Spokesmen for the BIA and Interior expressed confidence that most of the accounting changes were proper and said they doubted investigators would uncover any criminal activity connected with what they acknowledged were long-standing and well-known problems with the BIA's finances.

Congressional investigators have complained for more than a decade about the poor state of the agency's finances, run out a large office known in the BIA as "central office-west." Members of a special Senate committee that probed the BIA two years ago came away so frustrated that they called for dismantling the agency and establishing direct grants to Indian tribes.

The Bush administration opposed the recommendation, but the BIA's many management problems last year won it a rating as the worst-run agency in the federal bureaucracy in a Fortune magazine survey of former government executives who are members of the Council for Excellence in Government.

Interior Secretary "Manuel Lujan has been fighting for two years to tell everyone that the BIA is worth saving," Lujan spokesman Steve Goldstein said yesterday. "The problem is we're faced with a lot of people more willing to fund Indian art gallery openings than willing to fund Indian programs."

Goldstein said the team of 10 or more accountants and financial specialists being dispatched to Albuquerque would spend up to two years there attempting to resolve the agency's financial problems.

"We need to find this $95 million," he said. "The BIA tells the secretary that they don't believe it is stolen. There are accounting discrepancies that need to be reconciled."

A spokesman for the National Congress of American Indians, a Washington group that represents a number of major Native American tribes, said the action was "not surprising" and expressed doubt that OMB "was big enough" to resolve the problems.

"Plenty of attention has been directed at that office and they're always blaming their problems on their computer system," said the official.

Congressional officials called the administration's action overdue. Patricia M. Zell, chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, described the decision as "an evolutionary response to a problem that has been consistently identified."

"It is good to see that they are going out there and start to wrestle with these problems," agreed Dan Lewis, the committee's minority staff director.

"What's different about this effort and what's unique is that we're pulling together a team from outside the agency," said Bettenberg.

Members of the Albuquerque team have three primary missions -- to install a new financial systems, clean up the past mistakes and train the financial staff, he said.

"We're going to do everything possible to fix it," Bettenberg said. Interior auditors have not found any violations of federal laws, he said, but they have warned BIA officials that "the combination of a poor system, bad data and untrained accountants results in a system in which you can't have any confidence in the results."

The joint statement by Lujan and OMB Director Richard G. Darman said they expect to have a new accounting system in place by the next fiscal year. The team will assume responsibility for overseeing "all adjustments" to BIA finances and "will assist in the complete overall and revamping of BIA's financial tracking system," they said.

Despite the harsh language about the agency's financial records, spokesmen said no official had been subjected to disciplinary action as a result of the probe.