FROM THE ARCHIVE

Trust fund accounting scaled back

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TUESDAY, JANUARY 7, 2003

Department of Interior officials have backed away from pledges to conduct a full historical accounting of money owed to more than 500,000 American Indians.

A reform plan delivered to a federal judge last night reveals significant limitations to the undertaking. Although Secretary Gale Norton and her aides over the past two years have vowed to finish the job -- no matter how complex -- they have since changed their minds.

"Interior believes this plan is the best means of fulfilling Interior's statutory duties within a reasonable period," the document states.

The result is less costly and time-consuming than previously anticipated. Instead of spending at least $2.4 billion and 10 years, Norton now estimates the new approach can be realized within five years to the tune of $335 million.

But it comes at the expense of tribal ancestors. Although Interior in July 2002 admitted there have been at least 700,000 Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts, the department will only look at the approximately 260,000 that exist today, leaving the funds of deceased beneficiaries unaccounted.

This limitation extends to elders who have the misfortune of passing away before the government gets around to his or her account. "In other words, in providing a full accounting to a current account holder, a trustee is not required to provide an accounting of the account from which the property was inherited," the plan argues.

The department also won't look back to 1887, the year the IIM trust was created. The effort will stop at 1938 at the earliest, according to the plan.

Tribal members who voluntarily entered into a land consolidation program the Bush administration is expanding are being left out. Since their accounts have been "closed," they won't be provided an accounting.

According to the plan, more than 20,000 high-dollar "special deposit accounts" also stand to be closed. Worth a total of $67.9 million, the government will try to distribute the money to the rightful owners.

As for the accounting itself, it will not include a report of the trust property owned by beneficiaries. In some cases, the plan states, account holders might be given "some summary information" about their land holdings.

The accounting will also employ statistical sampling of some transactions, a method that has been called into question due to the lack of adequate records.

According to the government, the changes were made for a variety of reasons, including pressure from Congress. The plan refers to complaints by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who at a hearing last July said: "There are a lot of Indian people out there who are going to die before they get that money."

The plan divides the IIM accounts into two major categories: per capita / judgment and land-based. The first type are relatively easy to handle, according to the department, and will be reconciled transaction-by-transaction.

Land-based accounts are more difficult and will be reconciled via sampling and transaction analysis. "Interior has concluded that relying solely on the transaction-by-transaction accounting approach is not warranted," the plan states.

In addition, government attorneys plan to file motions in federal court to challenge the full nature of the accounting. A footnote explains that the Interior will raise "legal issues" in an attempt to cut down the workload.

Relevant Documents:
DOI: Historical Accounting Plan | Plaintiffs: Historical Accounting 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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