Few assurances in trust fund accounting plan
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FRIDAY, JULY 5, 2002

American Indians will have to wait at least 10 years to receive an historical account of their funds, according to a Bush administration plan released on Wednesday.

The effort will cost at least $2.4 billion, the Department of Interior said in a report delivered to Congress and filed in federal court. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the government in 1999 to provide an accounting "without regard to when the funds were deposited."

That mandate, also contained in a 1994 law, forms the basis of a 100-page report from by Bert T. Edwards, director of the Office of Historical Accounting (OHTA). The former Arthur Anderson partner spent almost a year drafting what the department said was a monumental undertaking.

"This historical accounting project is complex, challenging and enormous," Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget Lynn Scarlett said in a statement.

There were little assurances, however, that the plan will succeed. The department admitted it couldn't provide a time-frame for the accounting, which is to take place in three stages.

Neither could it guarantee that costs won't escalate. Should delays be encountered, the price tag could top $3 billion and increase as time goes on, the OHTA estimated.

The department also can't ensure the electronic data, records and other documents are adequate. The first phase -- covering the period 1985 through 2000 -- will be based on a computer database Secretary Gale Norton said is faulty.

"My understanding is that it is not a satisfactory system and that the quality of data that's in there varies from region to region," she testified in federal court in February. Generally we are not satisfied with the quality of the data that is in that system and we are going through efforts to try to improve that."

Stretching further back to the inception of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust in 1887, the department plans to rely on paper records, some of which no longer exist. Documents have been destroyed, are missing or are in poor condition, the plan states.

"Therefore, Interior cannot provide a dependable estimate as to when the project will be completed," the report said.

The lack of confidence brought criticism from the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton class action. "Under the proposed plan many of our older beneficiaries will have passed on before the promised accounting," the beneficiaries said in a statement.

"We cannot, should not, and will not tolerate this delay any longer," they added.

The department estimated 700,000 IIM accounts would be part of the plan.

Congress has expressed doubts about a costly and time-consuming affair. For two years in a row, the department has been warned that funding won't be provided without assurances of success.

Relevant Documents:
OHTA Letter | OHTA Plan

Relevant Links:
Office of Historical Trust Fund Accounting -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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