FROM THE ARCHIVE

House bill cuts trust fund accounting

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FRIDAY, JUNE 28, 2002

A House subcommittee this week sharply curbed an historical accounting owed to more than 300,000 American Indians.

At a Tuesday mark-up session, the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee cut back the massive undertaking. Language in a $19.7 billion spending bill limits the accounting to 1985 forward, contradicting court papers which promised the effort would go as far back as 1938.

Lawmakers on the subcommittee, chaired by retiring Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.), also scaled back the scope of the project. The Department of Interior would only be allowed to look at accounts that were active as of December 2000.

Indian beneficiaries whose accounts were closed due to low balances or inactive transactions, and those who voluntarily participated in a land consolidation the Bush administration wants to expand would not be provided a report of their funds.

The roll-back comes as Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is to release her long-awaited accounting project, due by the end of this month. She has said an accounting is "long overdue."

Yet the funding bill, if approved by Congress, kills Norton's vow before she gets to the starting gate. While the legislation doesn't mean future funding will be shut off, it indicates dissatisfaction with the forthcoming plan.

For two years in a row, Congress has warned it would not fund an effort that could not guarantee success.

But the bill also fulfills a wish-list senior Interior officials gave to the subcommittee earlier this year, raising questions about the department's involvement in limiting its responsibilities. During a March hearing, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and other Norton aides expressed frustration to lawmakers who were more than willing to accommodate the complaints.

Griles asked the subcommittee for help with nearly 50 department officials and government attorneys -- whom he called "some very good people" -- facing contempt sanctions in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) case. "I have asked the judge to release them," he said at the March 14 hearing.

The lawmakers responded by including language that pays fully for private counsel the past and present employees hired. Normally, the government is only allowed to pay up to $125 an hour in attorneys' fees.

Griles also suggested ways for the subcommittee to obtain a copy of a report that discloses personal data about the five named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth forbid its release last December in a harshly worded court order.

"I tell the legal team what to do," said Griles. "To say I got a stern rebuke was an understatement."

Griles said the subcommittee might ask Lamberth for the information. Instead, the bill requires Norton to release the $21 million Ernst & Young report.

Norton's request to kick court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III off the case is represented by language which limits his $250 an hour compensation. Special master Alan Balaran would also be affected.

Ongoing dissatisfaction with the performance of Special Trustee Tom Slonaker was also hinted. The bill calls for the removal of Slonaker's advisory board -- which is chaired by Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the IIM lawsuit, and includes Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California; Greg Bourland, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota; and other prominent tribal leaders.

The House Appropriations Committee would not release a copy of the legislation yesterday when asked. Details of the funding limitations, however, were being widely circulated among tribal leaders.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was meeting yesterday to consider its own version of the bill. Information was not immediately available.

Related Stories:
Deadline nears for trust fund accounting plan (5/7)
Interior rebuffed on historical accounting (4/24)
Bush administration bets on accounting (3/18)
Interior considering a limited trust fund (3/15)
Norton: No 'dollar amount' on trust fund mess (3/14)
Trust fund accounting tests federal judge (3/13)
Norton withdrawing accounting arguments (2/20)
McCaleb: Without settlement, accounting a 'guess' (2/19)
Norton says accounting complete for plaintiffs (2/14)
GAO: Full reconciliation impossible (2/8)