The House Resources Committee held a hearing on Thursday on legislation to settle the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit but both sides remained far apart on a potential dollar amount.
Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department, called a proposed settlement in the billions outlandish. He said the Bush administration has spent more than $100 million to amass "substantial evidence" that shows individual Indians haven't been cheated out of oil, gas and other royalties.
"Today it's abundantly clear that the plaintiffs' public claim that $176 billion is owed is vastly overstated, to say the least," Cason told the panel.
This past June, a coalition that includes the Cobell plaintiffs, tribes and major Indian organization, proposed to settle the case for $27.5 billion. Cason derided the amount as unjustified, based on the historical accounting work that has taken place so far.
"This figure, too, is based on assumptions that available evidence simply does not support," Cason testified.
Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, defended the settlement proposal. She said the figure was a "bargain" because it assumes the federal government paid out 80 percent of
the oil, gas and other revenues generated on Indian land since 1887.
"They can't account for 99 percent of the transactions," Cobell said, citing an accounting report that was based on the accounts of the five-named plaintiffs in the lawsuit and their ancestors.
"But we gave them the benefit of the doubt of 80 percent."
Cobell said the government won't be able to complete a true historical accounting due
to missing records, destroyed documents and inaccurate information in the government's computer systems. "There are so many documents that are destroyed, it's impossible," she testified.
"And we've known its been impossible to do an accounting. So you take an alternative
method of accounting, and that's what we did."
The plaintiffs and the Bush administration agree only on one figure. Both sides say that $13 billion has passed through the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust accounts since the early 1900s.
"So there is agreement on how much money should have gone in," Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the committee said. "There's no agreement on how much was actually paid."
"Nobody knows what they paid," Cobell added. "No one knows what they paid."
Last month, Pombo introduced H.R. 4322
, the Indian Trust Reform Act of 2005. The co-sponsor is
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the ranking Democrat on the committee.
"The animosity between the parties is as bad as any I've ever seen," Rahall said in his opening statement yesterday. "While each side tries desperately to get the other side to bend to its
will, the Indian accounts holders still have not gotten a true accounting and I've come to believe they never will."
The legislation would settle the historical accounting portion of the lawsuit. But the dollar amount is left blank and Pombo described the package as a "work on progress."
"Right know, we don't have enough information on how many legitimate claimants there are, how much they would get per claimant, what is the total cost of the bill," said Rep. John Duncan (R-Tennessee). "The bill as you said is a work in progress, but it contains more blanks than any bill I've ever seen,"
The Senate version of the bill is S.1439
It was introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen.
Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman and ranking member, respectively,
of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Both bills would eliminate the Office of Special Trustee, create a deputy secretary position to oversee Indian affairs, establish an Indian Trust Asset Management Policy Review Commission and authorize a new land consolidation program. The Indian Trust Asset Management Demonstration Project, created for a handful of tribes a couple of years ago, would be expanded to more tribes.
Historical Accounting Decision:Cobell
(November 15, 2005)
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Trust Fund Monitoring Association - http://www.itmatrustfunds.org