FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush plans 'half-baked' accounting of trust

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MONDAY, JANUARY 6, 2003

The Bush administration isn't planning to account for the land, mineral and other trust assets owned by more than 500,000 American Indians, according to the sworn testimony of a senior trust official.

During a December 18 deposition, Bert T. Edwards, the chief architect of the Department of Interior's historical accounting project, said the government "backed away" from that part of the reform effort. In response to questioning by an attorney for the Indian beneficiaries, he argued that keeping track of non-cash assets -- including 11 million acres of trust land -- wasn't necessary.

"Trust fund is dealing with the cash that came in and the cash that went out," Edwards testified.

But two days later, another top official testified that excluding the real property from an accounting would be less than accurate. Although she said she hasn't worked on the plan Edwards is finalizing, acting Special Trustee Donna Erwin, who once worked for an oil and gas operation at a private bank, said beneficiaries would otherwise be given a report of all the assets they own.

"You would provide them annually a statement of performance, a statement of transactions and assets," Erwin said on December 20.

The conflict surfaced just weeks before the Interior is to submit two reform plans to a federal judge. Due by in court today, the government is to explain how it will conduct a historical accounting for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, which dates to 1887, and how it will fix the broken system.

Tex Hall, an IIM beneficiary and president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), was critical of plans to limit the government's duties. "That's a half-baked accounting," he said. "It's not a full picture. That really surprises me and it upsets me."

Edwards acknowledged that the department at one point in time was planning to provide what Hall and other beneficiaries want. In September 2001, his Office of Historical Trust Accounting (OHTA) finalized a "blueprint" that gave a broad outline of the monumental project.

Edwards backed up the document with a sworn court declaration related to the scope of the accounting. "This accounting will include at an appropriate level of detail an assessment of the accuracy of the balances of IIM accounts, reports to individual beneficiaries of the money, and real property held in trust for their benefit," he stated on November 26, 2001.

When asked to explain the difference between that position and his current one, Edwards said: "Well, in 13 months minds are changed."

In a July 2002 report to Congress, the department estimated it would take at least 10 years and at least $2.4 billion to finalize the IIM project. But Edwards testified that this figure didn't include an accounting of the land, mineral and trust assets.

"It would be an additional cost . . . depending on what accounting for real property would be," he said.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in December 1999 ordered the department to account for the IIM trust, which is derived from oil, gas, grazing, timber and other land-based activity. He was upheld unanimously on appeal in February 2001.

In September 2002, he ordered Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to provide additional trust plans. Edwards and Abe Haspel, the Assistant Deputy Secretary, are the primary authors of the accounting plan while Ross Swimmer, director of the Office of Indian Trust Transition, is the lead on the IIM reform plan.

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
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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