Norton 'incapable' of reform say trust experts
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton will never be able to fix the broken Indian trust fund, two former government officials who left their posts amid high-level pressure told Congress on Tuesday.

Although separated by Republican and Democrat regimes, Tom Slonaker and Paul Homan were hindered in their attempts to reform the management of Indian assets. Charged by a 1994 law to correct more than a century of incompetence, they said the Department of Interior lacks the will and expertise to meet its fiduciary responsibilities to Indian Country.

"The department is incapable of executing trust reform," said Slonaker, who was ousted in July after he questioned a number of Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's initiatives.

Homan left in a similar mess. On the eve of the Clinton administration's contempt of court trial in January 1999, then-Secretary Bruce Babbitt stripped the former banking executive of most of his powers and reorganized the Office of Special Trustee.

"The department does not have the will or ability to address management issues," he said.

The pair appeared at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing called at the request of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He expressed frustration that no visible changes have occurred in the management of billions of dollars in tribal- and individually-owned funds.

"Here we are again with still Native Americans being treated in a cavalier fashion," he said. "I don't know of any other group of Americans that would be treated in that fashion."

"This borders on a national disgrace," he later added.

Slonaker and Homan, who have years of trust experience between them, recommended that fiduciary duties be stripped from the Interior and handed to an independent government agency. The idea drew support from McCain and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the panel's vice chairman who has drafted legislation to do just that.

Since the United States, and not the Interior, is the trustee to Indians, the legal and political relationship will not be diminished, noted Homan.

The department's sole representative at the hearing insisted the Bush administration was willing to work with Congress and Indian Country on any potential solution. "The status quo is not acceptable," said Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason, who is a political appointee but was not confirmed by the Senate.

McCain wasn't convinced and pointed out the department's historical "lack of credibility." "Facts are facts," he told Cason. "Someone who had your job before you said the exact same thing years ago."

Slonaker and Homan said individual Indian beneficiaries, who own 11 million acres of land, are usually ignored by the Interior. "I see, frankly, and as a general statement, individual Indians as being underrepresented in this process. I think that's tragic."

Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker, initiated a class action in 1996 to represent the views of the individual account holders, who number more than 500,000. The Bush administration, however, has asked Congress to remove her from a citizens' trust advisory board. Several other prominent tribal leaders would also be ousted.

In total, Interior manages 54 million acres of land, with 45 million held for tribes. An estimated $500 million flows through the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust accounts annually but the government cannot account for a single penny. The same goes for more than $2 billion in tribal accounts.

"The department is still unable to account for yesterday's transactions," noted Homan, "much less an historical accounting."

In holding Norton and Indian affairs aide Neal McCaleb in contempt last week, U.S. District Lamberth said the Interior "has indisputably proven to the court, Congress, and the individual Indian beneficiaries that it is either unwilling or unable to administer competently the IIM trust."

Relevant Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (9/24)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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