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Pressure stirs to settle trust fund lawsuit
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2003

The Bush administration doesn't anticipate returning to settlement talks with the plaintiffs in the long-running trust fund lawsuit, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton said on Wednesday.

Testifying before a House subcommittee on her fiscal year 2004 budget request, Norton said the two sides were too far apart on an historical accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. The Department of Interior doesn't think Indian beneficiaries are owed billions, she told lawmakers.

"There is a tremendous difference between our position and the plaintiffs' position," she said, referring to estimates of the amount that has passed through the system for nearly a century. "The difference is so vast that there are very few opportunities for sitting down and resolving the issue."

With the Cobell case entering its seventh year, outside pressure to settle has been mounting, although most of it originates from a few members of Congress. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) plans to introduce a bill to allow beneficiaries to voluntarily extinguish their right to an historical accounting for a settlement.

"If left alone, it will go on for years and years," Campbell said on Tuesday at the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Washington, D.C.

Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney, said the plaintiffs have always been willing to discuss settlement. But proposals that put the federal government in sole control won't ensure justice to account holders who haven't been treated fairly for more than a century, he said.

"What the Secretary and Sen. Campbell have proposed is essentially allowing multi-million dollar claims to get settled for pennies on the dollar," he said. "It's absurd to suggest that you should be able to allow a Secretary of the Interior -- who is an unfit trustee-delegate and who has demonstrated a propensity to lie at every stage -- full authority [of the accounts] without any oversight."

Since the case's inception in 1996, nearly a dozen settlement attempts have been made. A deal was reached at the end the Clinton administration but was rejected by the Department of Justice. Talks were revived with Bush officials but failed last year, prompting Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles to ridicule large dollar figures cited the plaintiffs.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said he wants to see the dispute resolved. "The time has come to close the chapter, if at all possible," he told tribal leaders on Tuesday.

But he also noted that the federal government must live up to its fiduciary obligations. "If it takes $2.4 billion, let's find that $2.4 billion," he said, referring to a Bush administration estimate, now rejected, of the cost of an historical accounting.

Last summer, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, led the fight against a legislative attempt to limit the government's trust obligations. "After six years of litigation, the Department of the Interior remains unable or unwilling to provide an accounting to beneficiaries," he said on Wednesday.

Norton yesterday said the new approach, to cost $335 million over five years, is much more limited. Although the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries want a transaction-by-transaction accounting, the department plans a combined transactional and statistical sampling of the money. The actual land holdings, however, won't be accounted.

Norton also acknowledged the loss of trust records necessary but said it was still possible to do a "credible" accounting. "We certainly cannot say we have every piece of paper," she said.

Paul Moorehead, an aide to Campbell on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said the settlement bill was not "ready" to be introduced. "It's not a perfect idea," he said in an interview. "There is not even 100 percent consensus."

The Interior admits that at least $13 billion has passed through the IIM system since 1909, all of it unaccounted. The plaintiffs say a more realistic figure, which includes land sales that occurred from 1887 to 1934, when 90 million acres of the Indian estate fell into non-Indian hands, is $137 billion.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

Related Stories:
Spending bill keeps provisions affecting Cobell (02/14)
Senate panel eager to confirm Swimmer as trustee (02/13)
Norton says trust forced 'tough choices' in budget (02/12)
Budget not kind to Indian Country (2/10)
Trust programs see historic increase (2/4)
Court asked to reject Bush accounting plan (02/03)
Norton's plan faces court scrutiny (1/27)
Tribes debate response to trust reform plans (01/13)
Standards guide reform effort (1/8)
What happened to all the land? (1/8)
Congressman accuses Norton of 'stealth' moves (1/8)
Sioux chairman calls BIA talks a 'sham' (1/8)
Cobell trust reform plans filed (1/7)
Norton to fight IIM accounting (1/7)
Norton won't account for assets (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)

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