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Trust
Latest trust fund order sparks reaction from Congress


The battle over the Indian trust fund heated up on Friday as a federal appeals court blocked the latest Internet shutdown order and a key Congressman said the case has gotten out of control.

A day after U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to protect its Indian trust fund systems from hackers, a higher court stopped the move. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, acting on an emergency request by the Bush administration, issued an administrative stay pending further consideration.

The per curiam order issued by a panel of three judges indicated the administration would submit a full motion to block the order by Thursday of this week.

Meanwhile, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the influential chairman of the House Resources Committee, announced he would join efforts to settle the case. He said the shutdown order "demonstrates the need to take this matter out of this court's hands, where it has soured for 9 years" and resolve the dispute.

"In some respects, the filing of the lawsuit was necessary to get the government's attention, and fix a problem that had been brewing for decades," Pombo said of a case that began in 1996. "Unfortunately, it has taken on a life of its own, with a potential to cost billions of dollars on attorneys and accountants and very little for the Indians the lawsuit was supposed to benefit."

Pombo called on Congress to step in and ensure individual Indians receive their "due." He said the lawsuit has shown that the federal government cannot provide an accurate accounting of billions of oil, gas, timber and other royalties that have been generated on Indian lands since 1887.

In hopes of ending the matter, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman and vice chairman respectively, of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, have introduced legislation to settle the case. Pombo said he would work with the Senate on drafting a package.

McCain and Dorgan held a hearing on the bill in July but ran into a number of objections from Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, and other prominent tribal leaders. They said the bill ignored the principles they drafted -- at the request of the Senate and House -- and gave too much control to the Interior and Treasury departments, who have been held in breach of trust.

McCain and Dorgan repeatedly stressed the language was merely a starting point. But they outright rejected a proposed settlement of $27.5 billion for the Cobell case, calling the amount too high.

The Bush administration also opposed the proposal, saying there is no proof that Indian funds have been mismanaged over the last century. Interior officials indicated they objected to other provisions of the bill as well.

Since then, there has been little movement in Congress on the settlement package. Lamberth's decision to order a disconnect of Indian trust systems for the fourth time, however, prompted a new round of lobbying by the Bush administration, which has repeatedly turned to lawmakers in hopes of overturning their court losses.

Even though the Indian trust systems have not been connected to the public Internet for nearly four years, the Interior Department says the shutdown will impede services to Indian and tribal beneficiaries. Officials last week said they would have trouble processing oil, gas and other payments.

But Cobell said a recent 59-day trial proved that Interior hasn't improved its computer network despite spending more than $100 million. When will this disgraceful behavior end and when will Secretary [Gale] Norton begin to discharge her fiduciary responsibilities that she owes to Indian people?" Cobell said. "We will fight her efforts to allow our trust records and assets to continue to be manipulated, corrupted, stolen, and destroyed because of Interior’s poor computer security."

Internet Shutdown Decision:
Decision: Cobell v. Norton (October 20, 2005)

Senate Documents:
John McCain Statement | Byron Dorgan Statement | Full Text of Bill as Introduced | S.1439

Relevant Documents:
Trust Reform and Cobell Settlement Workgroup Principles for Legislation (June 2005)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Intertribal Trust Fund Monitoring Association - http://www.itmatrustfunds.org