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On trust, lawmakers take Bush officials at face value
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 25, 2003

In approving a $19.6 billion budget for the Department of Interior, a House subcommittee last week embraced the Bush administration's criticisms of the Cobell trust fund lawsuit.

Although Department of Interior representatives said they were unfamiliar with the bill, its details closely reflect sentiments held by top officials, most notably Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles. A report accompanying the massive package adopts his publicly stated views of the seven-year-old dispute.

"This is only benefiting lawyers and accountants," Griles told the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee on March 12.

"The result of this process will likely provide more and more money to accountants and lawyers with little benefit for the individual account holders," the subcommittee wrote last week in referring to an historical accounting.

The similarities don't end there. During the March hearing, Griles said a 1990s study of tribal trust fund accounts performed by Arthur Andersen, an accounting firm that has since gone out of business after being convicted for obstruction of justice, revealed few problems.

"The work we have done so far would indicate the error rate [was insignificant]," Griles said of the analysis.

"[O]ther studies . . . indicate that the likely error rate for the more than 300,000 individual Indian money accounts is not significant," the committee wrote.

Griles' conversation with the subcommittee went so far as to suggest ways for the eager lawmakers to resolve the Cobell dispute once and for all. "Potentially, you can dictate a settlement from Congress," he said.

Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), the panel's chairman, and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking member, responded by creating a settlement program that would do just what Griles said. In stripping the Bush administration's request for historical accounting activities from $130 million to $75 million, the lawmakers hope to kill the Cobell suit within five years.

"I too would like this case to end," Griles said.

Last summer, Bush officials faced criticism for a provision in the 2003 spending bill that would have limited an historical accounting from 1985 to the present. The language was eventually removed on the House floor by a bipartisan vote of 281 to 144 but not before Griles went before tribal leaders, at a meeting of the trust reform task force, to deny involvement.

At the time, other department officials also denied involvement, both publicly and privately. Griles went so far as to ask a subordinate to contact Indianz.Com to distance himself from the House bill, according to this subordinate, who asked not to be quoted by name but sought a retraction of a story about the legislation. Indianz.Com honored the subordinate's request to speak without attribution but declined to publish a retraction.

This year's appropriations bill was marked out of subcommittee last Wednesday. It is slated to go before the full House Appropriations Committee today*.

*Ed. Note: The bill was considered by the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, June 25, not Thursday, June 26, as was previously reported.

Relevant Links:
House Appropriations Committee - http://www.house.gov/appropriations
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:
Norton offered settlement funds for IIM trust (6/20)
Lamberth criticizes interference with trust fund case (05/22)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)
Judge authorizes release of trust fund report (03/26)
Appropriators question historical accounting plan (03/13)
On accounting, Norton find her magic date (03/12)
Pressure stirs to settle trust fund lawsuit (02/27)
Spending bill keeps provisions affecting Cobell (02/14)
Trust programs see historic increase (2/4)
Standards guide reform effort (1/8)
What happened to all the land? (1/8)
Norton to fight IIM accounting (1/7)
Norton won't account for assets (1/6)
Lamberth slams claimed accounting (12/23)
Tribes opposing trust fund settlement bill (11/13)
Judge rejects Norton's 'absurd' accounting claim (09/23)
Funding battle underlies trust obligations (7/19)
Interior budget bill generates strong debate (7/17)
Opposition to trust fund bill mounts (7/15)
Norton delivers accounting plan (7/5)
House bill cuts trust fund accounting (6/28)

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