FROM THE ARCHIVE

Much to blame -- except lack of plan -- for trust fund failures

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MONDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 2002

The ongoing Indian trust fund litigation continues to hamper work at the Department of Interior, according to the Bush administration's latest court report.

Despite having no guidelines for trust reform, Secretary Gale Norton blames other factors for her failure to fix the broken system. Relying on hearsay, she ties the breakdown of the joint federal-tribal task force on attorneys representing 500,000 Indian beneficiaries whose funds have never been accounted.

"I have heard reports that plaintiffs' counsel inserted unrelated issues into that process, which proved divisive," Norton writes in her section of the 11th quarterly report.

Norton goes onto cite "vilification" of unnamed yet "highly regarded, hard-working" employees at the hands of the Cobell plaintiffs, the Internet and the media. "I believe that this vilification has caused many of the department's most experienced, conscientious employees to try to avoid involvement in trust matters," she alleges.

As Norton and Indian affairs aide Neal McCaleb enter the second phase of the trust litigation, the complaints are nothing new. In prior court reports and court filings, department officials lament the impact of the bitter Cobell lawsuit on their inability to reform.

But Norton omits some facts about the time period covered by the court-mandated report. She doesn't explain the nature of the disagreement with tribal leaders who demanded that the Interior be held accountable for the management of billions of dollars in Indian assets.

"The proposal by the tribes contained language that was unacceptable to DOI," is all the report concludes about the dispute. There is also no mention that the Navajo Nation walked away from negotiations in disgust over the department's stance on trust reform.

When referring to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's recent contempt decision, there is a similar selective response. Norton doesn't address a key passage in the ruling that anticipates her predicament.

"Thus, if individuals at the Department of Interior, including Secretary Norton, feel that as a result of this court's ruling they are unable or unwilling to perform their duties to the best of their ability, then they should leave the department forthwith," Lamberth wrote on September 17.

The lack of complete disclosure brought criticism from Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the class action, and Keith Harper, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. At the National Congress of American Indians last week, they said the report was indicative of the disregard in which Indian people have been treated.

"They don't just lie to us, they lie to Congress, they lie to the courts, they lie to the tribes," said Harper of government officials. "They don't lie all the time -- only when they move their lips."

In December 1999, Lamberth ordered the Interior to provide quarterly updates detailing the steps being taken to bring itself into compliance with the fiduciary obligations owed to Indian account holders. As of this date, none of the breaches of trust have been corrected.

Since January, Norton has been operating without a plan to correct the breaches after voluntarily scrapping the Clinton administration's blueprint. By January 6, she must submit a replacement.

The quarterly reports have been controversial throughout the six-year case. In September, Norton and McCaleb were held in contempt for providing misleading information about the status of reform efforts. They are currently under investigation for possibly covering up problems with a key project.

"The Secretary of the Interior is unfit to be a trustee-delegate," said Cobell, "and it's about time we came to the grips with that."

Cobell and her attorneys are developing their own plans to reform the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Lamberth said the plans must address an historical accounting of the trust and standards by which the IIM accounts are to be administered.

Get the Report:
11th Quarterly Report (DOI November 2002)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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Norton submits new court report (11/11)
DOI report to court was changed (11/7)
Norton proposes divide and conquer (11/6)
Bush sets up tribal roadblocks (11/5)
Norton policy terminates rights (11/4)
Court probes Norton's trust fund report (10/11)
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Judge rejects Norton's 'absurd' accounting claim (9/23)
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