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Bush punishes BIA budget to pay for Cobell


The Bush administration has made an across-the-board cut to the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget, blaming the reduction on the Cobell trust fund lawsuit.

In an unprecedented letter to tribal leaders, associate Interior deputy secretary Jim Cason announced a $3 million cut to the BIA budget. He said the administration failed to plan for attorney's fees awarded as part of the Cobell case even though the request for fees was pending for more than a year.

As a result, Cason said the BIA forked over $2 million from an account used to "reimburse tribal attorney's fees" and an additional $1 million came from an across-the-board rescission of tribal programs.

Additionally, the Office of Historical Trust Accounting and the Office of Special Trustee -- whose budgets have exploded since the start of the administration while BIA funding has remained flat -- contributed, Cason said. But their share only amounted to $2.3 million, according to the January 26 letter.

Finally, the Department of Treasury -- a named defendant in the suit whose officials were found in contempt of court and whose actions violated the trust responsibility -- contributed about $1.8 million, leaving the BIA to bear the brunt of the administration's failure to plan for the attorney's fees, which totaled $7.1 million.

"As this interim fee was not a planned expense, the [Interior] Department considered a wide range of options," Cason, a a non-Indian political appointee who has been acting as the head of the BIA for nearly a year, told tribal leaders.

The decision to make the cut and send out the letter drew strong criticism from Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation and an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, a non-profit organization that is co-counsel in the case. He accused the administration of employing "divide and conquer" tactics in order to generate backlash in Indian Country against the Cobell plaintiffs.

"This administration -- more than any other -- has shown by their actions in trust reform and their actions on sovereignty issues to be the most hostile administration in Indian affairs since termination," Harper said in an interview yesterday.

Harper said he has spoken to a handful of tribal leaders since the letter was sent out. "They see it as a political, transparent attempt to divide and conquer," he said.

Tribal leaders have repeatedly accused Bush officials of punishing Indian Country by bleeding the BIA budget while boosting funds for OST. "For fiscal years 2005 and 2006, funding cuts to BIA has reduced full time staff for law enforcement, education and other vital programs," said Tim Martin, the executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, at a Senate hearing last July.

"The Cobell litigation and DOI's interpretations of requirements to meet court orders has absorbed resources and limited the ability to implement already under-funded programs," he added.

A bill introduced by the leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee would ensure that funds used to settle the Cobell case and pay court and other fees would not come out of the BIA budget. Tribal leaders have endorsed this provision.

"Unquestionably, funds to settle the injustice against individual Indian money account holders cannot come from Indian programs," Jim Gray, the chief of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma and the chairman of the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association, said in his testimony.

Key members of Congress have agreed with the tribal views. The House Interior Appropriations Committee has repeatedly reduced funding for OST in light of the administration's increasing requests for money.

"The committee does not agree to the large increase requested in historical accounting and has shifted this funding to help offset the reductions proposed in the administration's request to Indian education and health care," the committee said in a report for the 2006 budget.

Previously, Cason warned tribal leaders to expect cuts in the BIA budget due to spending on Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. At the National Congress of American Indians annual conference last November, he said the agency was "holding back" five percent of its funds in anticipation of an across-the-board cut.

The issues of budget and the resources for the Cobell case will considered in the upcoming weeks. On February 14, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee holds a hearing on President Bush's fiscal year 2007 budget request. On March 1, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee will hold a joint hearing on the settlement of Cobell.

Jim Cason Letter:
Dear Tribal Leader (January 26, 2006)

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