FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush administration bets on accounting

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MONDAY, MARCH 18, 2002

A year ago this week, the Department of Interior's top trust reform official told members of a Congressional committee that the Bush administration wanted to settle the Individual Indian Money (IIM) class action that has dragged out for more than five years.

"I think this thing has to be negotiated to a conclusion in all aspects, and I know that the Secretary feels the same way," said Special Trustee Tom Slonaker.

But last week, department officials presented a markedly different picture. After several blistering court reports, a still unresolved computer shutdown and looming findings of contempt, they informed the same panel that resolution wasn't on the table right now.

"We're not in a position to suggest a settlement," Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said flatly.

The reason, Griles explained, was two-fold. First, a settlement model proposed by attorneys representing 300,000 Indian beneficiaries, was flat out wrong because he said it would require the Bush administration to pay account holders twice for missing funds, a position which assumes they have been paid at all.

The second reason, and the one of more interest to the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee which has bankrolled reform efforts to the tune of $614 million, was that Secretary Gale Norton has a "plan," department officials quipped. By June, her Office of Historical Trust Accounting will have a "better understanding," Griles said, of how much it will cost to account for every dollar that has gone in and out of the trust as far back as 1887.

The message was simple: We're going to prove to the Indians that we've been right all along, even if costs hundreds of millions of untold dollars to do it. Or, to paraphrase a statement uttered by a former government official: "We're going to whip them."

But if it sounds like the Bush administration has stumbled upon new information that will finally turn the case around in its favor, members of Congress might be sorely disappointed. Missing from the apparent confidence displayed by Griles, trust transition director Ross Swimmer and historical accountant Bert Edwards -- Slonaker was mum on the issue -- were details.

Arguably, the details are still being worked out because after all, that is the whole purpose of this exercise. "That's the plan," remarked Swimmer.

What has been provided, however, doesn't look promising. Griles noted that the department still hasn't decided how far back to reconcile the accounts, nearly eight months after the effort apparently started.

And the pilot accounting projects that have been launched since then don't immediately shed light on the central problems in the lawsuit. Per capita funds, land claim judgments and IIM account holders in the Eastern region of the country are due for resolution while beneficiaries with grazing, timber and oil and gas assets have gotten little attention, according to court documents and information provided to Congress.

Still, Edwards beamed about the efforts and even claimed success. "We will deliver some historical accountings to the beneficiaries," he said of one completed project.

Lawmakers reacted with equal parts skepticism, equal parts aplomb. Ranking member Norm Dicks of Washington said the Cobell case was "not very helpful" but called for settlement nonetheless.

"I hope we can move beyond lawsuits very soon," he said.

Retiring chairman Joe Skeen of New Mexico may have struck at the heart of the issue, though. "We have provided every dollar you requested," he said.

If it sounds like a gamble, it is. Judging by their remarks, Bush officials are ready to take the risk instead of conceding they owe Indian Country hundreds of billions of dollars, if any money at all.

Much like their predecessors, they might soon themselves wedged in a corner, however. The Clinton administration thought it could win the case on appeal, a prospect which was dashed just weeks after they left office.

It was a incredible bet and one which played a central role in Norton's contempt trial. So much so that the federal judge presiding over the case has taken delight in pointing out how the strategy backfired.

"They put a lot of eggs in that basket, didn't they?" said U.S. District Judge Royce. Lamberth at the start of the trial.

"Yes," responded Slonaker's top aide.

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://130.94.214.68/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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