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Let court review trust fund accounts

After years of denying its obligations to American Indians, the Department of Interior has announced the completion of an "historical accounting" for some members of an Arizona tribe. The money was "investigated, audited and reconciled," according to yesterday's press release.

If that's not enough to convince you, take the words of Bert T. Edwards, the official in charge. He happens to be a former partner with accounting firm Arthur Andersen. (Yes, that Arthur Andersen, the one convicted of destroying documents.)

"Starting and closing balances are identical and compare, to the penny, to DOI's detailed records," he said.

But as with most efforts from the federal government, forgive us if we are skeptical. In the words of a federal judge, it's another case of "too little, too late" from Secretary Gale Norton.

You can't blame her for trying. After being slapped with contempt and misconduct for failing to act like a trustee, she undoubtedly wants to get the ball rolling.

The entire affair, however, represents a pattern of deceit, defiance and delay on behalf of Interior officials dating as far back as anyone can remember. Only this time, Norton won't be able to fault her predecessors for her own actions.

Instead of mailing the accounting statements to Indian Country, Norton should submit them to the federal judge responsible for ensuring justice is achieved. In fact, in his September 17 contempt decision, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth affirmed the need for judicial review.

The Interior, he wrote, "has annoyingly persisted in arguing that this court lacks jurisdiction to review its efforts to conduct a historical accounting of the IIM trust account. The court finds the department's contention in this regard to be misplaced."

Department officials say there's nothing to worry about. "This is something that could have been done in a high school accounting class," said spokesperson Dan DuBray. "It's really a simple matter."

That kind of thinking is reason enough for the court to step in. It shouldn't take long for Lamberth to approve the "simple" accountings.

But Norton and her aides, it appears, have reason to hide. Former special trustee Tom Slonaker, an experienced trust manager, tried to give his independent view of the judgment fund accounts at issue here.

In a May 5 letter to Edwards, he wrote: "I cannot concur that the reconciliation of the judgment accounts constitutes an historical accounting."

For his honesty -- which is required by law -- Slonaker was repaid with a resignation.

Norton also should know better than to jump the gun. During her contempt trial, she championed a $20 million effort by accounting firm Ernst & Young as fulfilling her obligations to the five named plaintiffs in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) class action.

"It's my understanding that they found documentation on the transactions . . . and the account balance reconciled," she said. In other words, the firm "investigated, audited and reconciled" the funds.

But Judge Lamberth saw through this ruse. "It is absurd for the Secretary to now argue that the work performed by Ernst & Young brings her into compliance with" her trust responsibilities, he said.

"Why are they so scared of any objective assessment?" asks Keith Harper, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. "If this is such a great accounting, why are they unwilling to get any objective perspectives?"

Those are good questions. Is Norton willing to answer them?

Related Stories:
Norton's denials ring hollow (9/20)
Judge rejects Norton's 'absurd' accounting claim (9/23)
Norton 'unfit' to manage Indian trust (9/18)
Griles nearly perjured himself (9/18)
Interior avoids admission of trust standards (07/24)
Bush plan ignored historical accounting doubts (7/16)
Deadline nears for trust fund accounting plan (5/7)
Interior rebuffed on historical accounting (4/24)
Bush administration bets on accounting (3/18)
Norton says accounting complete for plaintiffs (2/14)