> Land ownership records in disarray says witness
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Land ownership records in disarray, says witness
MONDAY, MAY 5, 2003
A full historical accounting of the Indian trust is impossible without keeping track of all the land that has fallen in and out of Indian ownership, a former Department of Interior official testified on Friday.
Paul Homan, who served as special trustee during the Clinton administration, returned to the stand for the second day of the trust fund trial. He said the Bush administration's proposal for the accounting fails to verify ownership records that are notoriously inaccurate.
"You really must start with the surveying of the land," Homan told the court.
The federal government created the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust in 1887 by allotting tracts of land to individual tribal members. In the fifty years that followed, 90 million acres fell out of Indian hands, due to land sales, questionable deals and outright theft.
But there has never been an attempt to determine whether the 11 million acres currently held in trust for individual Indians is correct, Homan said. A huge backlog of probates, increasing fractionation and inadequate records compound the problem, he said.
"No one really knows who owns anything," he testified.
One Bureau of Indian Affairs system, Homan recalled of his tenure in government, showed that an Indian beneficiary in Montana owned just one tract of land. But another system showed the same person owning dozens more and no attempt was made to reconcile the difference, he said.
The dismal state of affairs that Homan depicted prompted U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to make an inquiry of the Department of Justice. "If I could find out how [the land] is listed today," he stated, "that would tell me if anything has happened in the last six years."
In January, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton submitted an historical accounting plan for the IIM trust that would take five years to complete and cost an estimated $335 million. It would combine a transaction-by-transaction analysis with statistical sampling to examine the money in each account going as far back as 1938.
But Norton's Office of Historical Trust Accounting (OHTA) doesn't intent to examine the land -- or corpus -- of the trust.
"It does not go back to inception and it doesn't go back to the corpus," said Homan.
The plaintiffs have proposed an alternate accounting plan that employs a computer-based Geographic Information System (GIS) to map Indian lands. They want the court to use this model to determine the extent of historical land sales. About 40 million acres of individually-held land is unaccounted for, they believe.
The BIA has more than 60 different land ownership systems, according to the Department of Interior's recent "as-is" study. Some are paper-based while others are computer-based. Each was developed independently, often to meet the needs of a particular tribe or reservation.
The Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) was designed to replace these "legacy" systems but it has been deemed a failure.
Homan is to return to the stand today to wrap up his testimony for the plaintiffs. He will then be cross-examined by the Department of Justice.
Homan was appointed by President Clinton to serve as the first special trustee, a post created by Congress in the wake of reports and investigations that documented widespread trust management failures at the Interior. He resigned in 1999 after tussling with then-Secretary Bruce Babbitt over the direction of trust reform.
His replacement, Tom Slonaker, joined the Interior in June 2000 and was forced out last July after disagreeing with the Bush administration on a number of issues, including the historical accounting. He testified for the plaintiffs in Norton's contempt trial but is not slated to appear for this trial.
Relevant Documents: DOI: Historical Accounting Plan
| DOI: Fiduciary Obligations Compliance Plan
| Plaintiffs: Remedial Plan
| Plaintiffs: Reform Order
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
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