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New efforts aimed at Indian trust fund lawsuit
Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Backing away from pledges to appoint a mediator for the Indian trust fund lawsuit, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) on Tuesday introduced a bill aimed at settling the billion-dollar debacle for millions.

Even though the Department of Interior admits it has not accounted for at least $13 billion that has passed through the system, the measure would appropriate just $40 million over four years to pay Indian account holders. "The bill will get money into the hands of Indians and that is my goal in introducing this bill," said Campbell, the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, in a statement.

The Indian Money Account Claims Satisfaction Act of 2003 would create a new bureaucracy to sort out historical accounting claims dating back more than a century. An Indian Money Account Satisfaction Task Force, composed of nine experts in the fields of forensic accounting, Indian law, commercial trust, mineral resources, economic modeling and civil litigation, would be charged with determining the balances in Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts.

An account holder could accept the balance proposed by the task force or challenge it before a new Indian Money Claims Tribunal, a five-member body chosen by the U.S. Attorney General. Or an account holder could chose to remain in the Indian trust fund class action, which was filed in 1996 on behalf of more than 500,000 individual Indians throughout the country.

Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney handling the Cobell v. Norton case, welcomed Campbell's involvement. But he called the bill "fundamentally flawed" and said the plaintiffs, who gave a briefing to Senate staff on the case last week, support mediation of the suit.

"We continue to believe that the initial approach accepted by tribes and the Cobell plaintiffs to mediate and resolve the case in a wholesale manner is still the best approach," he said in an interview. "It is not clear to us why the chairman, who initially suggested mediation, has now abandoned that approach."

In June, Campbell and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), vice-chairman of the Indian committee, held a hearing to address settlement of the case. At the time, both Campbell and Inouye backed the appointment of a federal mediator.

The idea was also endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest inter-tribal organization, whose president Tex Hall testified at the hearing. NCAI has since been granted a larger role in the case by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth.

Over the years, the plaintiffs and tribal leaders have called for a resolution of the case that is fair to account holders. Many account holders are elderly and depend on income from oil, gas, agricultural and other activity on their lands.

But the effort to resolve the matter has been complicated by political meddling. For the past two years, the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee has devised riders that would terminate the case by limiting the scope of an historical accounting and the funds used to conduct one.

Indian Country has unanimously rejected those approaches and successfully lobbied members of the House last year to remove one such rider. This summer, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Resources Committee, secured an agreement to strike another rider from the 2004 Interior budget bill.

That bill is currently before a joint House-Senate conference committee, of which Campbell is a member. Yet in spite of Pombo's arrangement, Congressional aides expect the Republicans who sit on the committee to unveil language, as early as today, targeting the Cobell suit.

Fearful of another rider, the leaders of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), said they oppose any provisions "that would limit the full historical accounting of the individual Indian trust or otherwise diminish the rights of Indian trust beneficiaries." In an October 17 letter to the Interior subcommittee, they also backed negotiated settlement of the case.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who represents thousands of Navajo tribal members affected by the suit, is backing Campbell's bill. While calling the federal government's management of the trust "inexcusable," he said ti would put put "an end to the never-ending cycle of litigation."

"This legislation will attempt to account for past actions and put in place a process to avoid future problems," he said.

Congressional Native American Caucus Letter:
J.D. Hayworth/Dale Kildee (October 17, 2003)

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
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
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Court asks Norton for brief in contempt case (09/15)
Court drops Norton appeal in Cobell suit (9/10)
Cobell asks full panel to rehear contempt case (09/03)
Cobell: Taxpayers foot bill for private lawyers (09/01)
Cobell: Delay and deception in trust fund case (09/01)
Trust: 'At least someone is standing up for us' (09/01)
Tally for private attorney fees in Cobell case rises (07/24)
Contempt charges against Interior vacated (7/21)
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Neal McCaleb happy court is off his back (7/21)
Editorial: DOI, Congress can't be trusted to do right (7/21)
Editorial: What about holding tribes accountable? (7/21)
Norton cleared of contempt on trust fund (7/18)
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