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Cason testifies on trust fund accounting limits

The Bush administration's plan to account for the Indian trust fund is far from "perfect," a top Department of Interior official said in federal court on Wednesday.

Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason is the first government official to testify in the ongoing trial, which is taking place in Washington, D.C. He acknowledged the department may end up spending more than an estimated $335 million over five years to account for the trust fund.

"This will not be a perfect process," he said. "We know there will be warts on it."

But Cason refused to concede that the limits Secretary of Interior Gale Norton imposed on the project will not fulfill the government's fiduciary obligations to Indian beneficiaries. He testified that "lawyers" and "accountants" advised the department that its plan will pass muster.

"He doesn't have to answer that," interjected U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, when Cason was questioned about the limits. "It's what the lawyers told him."

In January, Norton submitted to the court a proposal she contends will verify "substantially accurate" balances in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust fund accounts. She has said, in testimony to Congress, that it will resolve doubts of the department's management of the system.

But the plan includes a number of restrictions on who will receive an accounting. For example, although the department acknowledges there have been at least 700,000 American Indians who have been part of the trust since its inception in 1887, fewer than half of those living will be covered.

"I think that term has more than one possible interpretation," Cason said, when asked to explain whether plan will apply to all "past and present" Indian account holders.

Cason also said the government doesn't have to verify the land holdings, or corpus, of the trust. The department holds 11 million acres in trust for individual Indians but there has been no complete and accurate survey of the estate since 1887.

A preliminary survey of selected parcels by the Interior showed error rates of up to 20 percent, which could affect how much Indian beneficiaries are paid for activity occurring on their lands. Cason testified that such inaccuracies don't matter.

"What we've been asked to do is provide an accounting for 'all funds,'" he told the court, drawing a distinction between money derived from the corpus and the corpus itself.

Cason further said that "attorneys and accountants" told the department it was acceptable to limit the accounting to those Indian beneficiaries whose accounts were open as of 1994, the year the American Indian Trust Reform Act was passed. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in February 2001, unanimously ruled that the law did not create the trust relationship but simply affirmed it.

"I believe the plan," he testified, "is one that is designed for the department to do the best it can do."

Cason said he expects the department to receive further "guidance" from the courts about its duties. Lamberth, in a ruling before the trial begin May 1, affirmed the right of Indian beneficiaries to an accounting pre-1985. The government had asserted a six-year statute of limitations.

The trial continues today with Cason to resume his testimony.

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

Related Stories:
Swimmer testimony to come at end of Cobell trial (6/5)
Cason to take stand in Indian trust fund trial (6/4)
Indian trust standards debated (6/3)
Suit aims to halt reorganization (6/3)
Norton starts defense in trust fund trial (6/2)
Cobell welcomes a settlement to trust case (5/29)
Lamberth criticizes interference with trust fund case (05/22)
Trial in Cobell trust fund case kicks off (05/02)
Bush reform plans debated in trust fund trial (05/02)
Cobell v. Norton Recap: Day 1 of Trial 1.5 (05/02)
Court tackles trust accounting and reform plans (05/01)
Judge affirms full IIM accounting (4/29)

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