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Norton files Indian trust reform plans

The Bush administration on Monday unleashed more than 200 pages of what it said was part of an "ongoing" push to improve the management of the broken Indian trust.

Calling it the product of "detailed" work involving tribes, government officials and paid consultants, the government outlined a two-pronged effort. Through reorganization and reengineering, the Department of Interior wants to change the way more than $3 billion in funds and 54 million acres of land are handled.

"Interior is carrying out a comprehensive and systematic plan to reform management of its trust responsibilities," the plan, filed in federal court close to midnight, stated.

Largely the work of Ross Swimmer, a former Reagan administration official whose earlier attempt to change the system led to outrage among Congressional and tribal leaders, the "Fiduciary Obligations Compliance Plan" was drafted as part of a class action representing more than 500,000 American Indians whose trust assets have been in disarray for more than a century. Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, filed the suit in 1996 to force change.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who has overseen the debacle since then, has been openly critical of the lack of progress the Clinton and Bush administrations have made. In September 2002, he held Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Neal McCaleb, the Indian affairs aide who said he quit because of the litigation, in contempt of court for lying about stalled initiatives.

The plan seeks to contain that fury yet is notable for its lack of detailed timelines. The department promises to complete several tasks in the next two years but cautions that its efforts must be evaluated in light of a restructuring of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Office of Special Trustee (OST), the two agencies most responsible for trust functions, and a multi-milion study being undertaken by Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a management consulting firm.

In contrast, a proposal drafted by the Indian plaintiffs contained concrete deadlines for the government to fulfill its fiduciary obligations. Dennis Gingold, the lead attorney for the beneficiaries, said he followed Lamberth's September directive and drafted a "structural injunction" that will pave the way for "meaningful" change.

"A near-term deadline for defendants to provide what they have for so long promised in the way of trust reform is imperative," the filing, completed late last night, stated. Over the next few months, the plaintiffs call on the Interior to meet several tasks in anticipation of further court action by Lamberth.

Time wasn't the only difference between the two sides of the dispute. The plaintiffs identified eight trust obligations owed to Indian beneficiaries, including a duty of loyalty and impartiality.

In contrast, the department stated only two: to account for trust funds on an historical and current basis. According to the government, these duties were derived from a 1994 act that called for sweeping changes in the administration and management of Indian assets.

Per Lamberth's direction, the Bush administration and the plaintiffs have 30 days to respond to the plans. Tribal leaders, through the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), are meeting this week in Washington, D.C., to read the proposals in advance of submitting their own later this month.

In addition to the fiduciary obligations plan, the Interior filed a plan to conduct an historical accounting of the plaintiffs' trust fund accounts. It was notable for a complete shift in direction than what was promised to Indian Country in two earlier reports.

Lamberth expects to hold a trial this spring to address issues in advance of completing the accounting.

Relevant Documents:
DOI: Fiduciary Obligations Compliance Plan | Plaintiffs: Remedial Plan | Plaintiffs: Reform Order

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/

Related Stories:
Norton won't account for assets (1/6)
Swimmer picked as Indian trustee (1/6)
McCaleb learned about trust 'on the job' (12/23)
Lamberth slams claimed accounting (12/23)
Edwards: Slonaker changed mind on accounts (12/23)
McCaleb challenges trust accounting claims (12/19)
Deadline approaches on plans (12/19)
Tribes opposing BIA proposal (12/18)
'This is not son of BITAM' (12/17)
Tribes debate future of talks (12/17)

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