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Congress debates resolution of trust fund case
Thursday, October 30, 2003

The head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee warned on Wednesday that impatient lawmakers will take control of the Indian trust fund lawsuit unless a resolution is developed soon.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) said he wasn't happy with an appropriations rider that delays a court-ordered accounting of at least $13 billion in Indian funds. But he said it gave the plaintiffs in the case and the federal government time to work towards a settlement.

"We have to find a solution or it's just simply going to be taken away from us," he told attendees of a hearing.

Campbell also said he was concerned that the Bush administration is behind legislative efforts to terminate the case. For two years in a row, the Department of Interior's budget bill has contained riders targeting the seven-year-old class action, which represents more than 500,000 American Indian account holders.

"I got the feeling that, very frankly, part of this was driven by the administration," he observed. "Is it the department's strategy to insert language in appropriation bills to make this problem go away?"

Jim Cason, the assistant deputy Interior secretary, denied any knowledge of involvement. He said he didn't know if anyone at the department drafted, suggested or otherwise lobbied for the language, which puts off the accounting for a year while Congress develops the "scope" of the massive undertaking.

"I can't attest to who who specifically ram-rodded the effort," Cason told the committee. He chose his words carefully and said he had not seen the rider until yesterday.

Campbell is a member of a joint Senate-House conference committee that negotiated the Department of Interior's $20 billion appropriations bill. It was finalized Monday night but not delivered to most lawmakers until the following day.

The package is currently being debated on the House floor. As expected, lawmakers voted with their party yesterday to adopt a resolution that left the rider intact. The roll call was 289 to 136.

Starting this morning, several Indian Country advocates will launch an effort to send the bill back to the conference committee for further work. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking member, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, and others will argue against the rider.

Yesterday's Senate hearing focused on a bill Campbell has introduced to settle the case by creating a new bureaucracy to determine the balances of Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts. It met opposition from the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Osage Nation of Oklahoma.

John Echohawk, NARF's executive director, said it ignored basic principles of trust law that the plaintiffs have secured as part of the case. NCAI President Tex Hall called it a "quick fix" to a century-old problem. Osage Chief Jim Gray said it could adversely affect members of his tribe, who have million-dollar interests in oil and gas.

Cason also testified that the Bush administration doesn't support the S.1770, the Indian Money Account Claim Satisfaction Act. as drafted. The testimony prompted Campbell to renew calls to devise a mediated process to settle the case. For the first time, Cason said the department supported mediation although the pledge has yet to be put into writing.

Echohawk and Hall backed mediation, which they supported at a hearing in June. The plaintiffs and NCAI have drafted several principles they believe should guide the process.

To prevent future appropriations attacks, Campbell said participation from the plaintiffs, tribal leaders and the administration was crucial. "S.1770 is certainly not a perfect bill," he said. "We just can't find a solution by ourselves."

After the resolution on the bill was approved around 12:30 p.m. yesterday, House leaders pulled it from further action Debate is expected to resume today at 10 a.m.

The language in the conference committee report delaying the accounting states:
That nothing in the American Indian Trust Management Reform Act of 1994, Public Law 103-412, or in any other statute, and no principle of common law, shall be construed or applied to require the Department of the Interior to commence or continue historical accounting activities with respect to the Individual Indian Money Trust until the earlier of the following shall have occurred: (a) Congress shall have amended the American Indian Trust Management Reform Act of 1994 to delineate the specific historical accounting obligations of the Department of the Interior with respect to the Individual Indian Money Trust; or (b) December 31, 2004

Conference Committee Report:
House Report. 108-330

DOI Budget Bills:
H.R.2691 | H.Rept.108-195 | S.1391 | S.Rept.108-89

Relevant Bills:
Campbell: Indian Money Account Claim Satisfaction Act of 2003 (S.1770) | Daschle: Indian Trust Payment Equity Act of 2003 (S.1540)

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

Court Decisions:
Historical Accounting | Fixing the System | Structural Injunction

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -

Related Stories:
Battle brews in House over DOI budget bill (10/30)
Cobell rallies support for trust fund case (10/28)
DOI bill halts Indian trust fund case (10/24)
Bill targets Indian trust fund suit (10/22)
House chairman supports self-governance rider (10/14)
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Lamberth lays out future of Indian trust reform (09/26)
Court report finds undervaluation of Navajo lands (08/21)
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Tally for private attorney fees in Cobell case rises (07/24)
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Bush official balks at large settlement for Cobell (7/10)
On trust, lawmakers take Bush officials at face value (06/25)
Private attorneys reap benefits on Cobell case (06/24)
Norton offered settlement funds for IIM trust (6/20)
Lamberth criticizes interference with trust fund case (05/22)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)

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