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Editorial: The $200 billion question for Alberto Gonzales

If U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales still has his job by the end of the week, there's a big question Congress needs to ask him.

But it's not about his role in the latest scandal to grace Washington. Democrats, and even some Republicans, are calling for his head over the way the Bush administration fired several federal prosecutors who weren't loyal enough to the White House political machine.

This question is much more serious: How do you go from $200 billion in Indian trust fund liability to $7 billion in just two short years?

In March 2005, Gonzales went before a House committee to ask for more money to fight tribal trust fund lawsuits. At the time, about two dozen tribes had filed cases alleging mismanagement of their assets.

"The United States' potential exposure in these cases is more than $200 billion," he testified on March 1, 2005.

Two years later, more than 200 tribes have joined the crowded field. And the Native American Rights Fund lodged a class-action lawsuit on behalf of even more tribes who haven't been able to file a claim. Add the billion-dollar Cobell lawsuit over individual Indian trust funds and you have a rather big price tag.

That's why Gonzales' credibility, already at stake in the U.S. Attorney dustup, faces further doubts after he and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on March 1, 2007, offered "up to" $7 billion to settle Cobell and all the tribal cases, plus pay for trust reform, in exchange for eliminating the federal government's "exposure."

So there it is again: How do you go from $200 billion in Indian trust fund liability on March 1, 2005, to $7 billion on March 1, 2007?

Hopefully, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, will try to figure that out. He's called a hearing this Thursday to allow Gonzales and Kempthorne to "publicly discuss the origin of the settlement offer and to explain its details."

Given the political climate on Capitol Hill, it's likely Gonzales won't even appear before the committee. That means someone else from the administration will be giving the "no one did it" answers Indian Country that has heard for more than a century on every issue from trust to health care.

But even if Gonzales can't make the trip, that shouldn't stop the committee from asking tough questions about his role in the trust fund debacle. From the midnight rider in 2001 to the firing of former Special Trustee Tom Slonaker in 2002 to the time-out rider in 2003 to the ouster of two court investigators in 2004 to the removal campaign of Judge Lamberth in 2005 to the resistance of a settlement in 2006, the panel will find a trail that leads all the way to the president.

For the White House is where Gonzales got his start, as President Bush's top lawyer, before moving to the Department of Justice. One of his top aides at both places was Kyle Sampson, whose had his hands all over the trust fund since the start of the Bush administration in 2001 until he resigned two weeks ago, a mid-level casualty of the U.S. Attorney scandal.

Sampson is expected to spill the beans at another hearing this Thursday. Maybe Dorgan should schedule a session with him too so we can finally get some answers and get a real settlement to this mess.

Settlement Letter:
Kempthorne-Gonzales to SCIA (March 1, 2007)

Elouise Cobell Statement:

Sen. Dorgan Statement:

Other Documents:
Alberto Gonzales Testimony (March 1, 2005) | SCIA Views and Estimates (March 1, 2007)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -