McCaleb challenges trust accounting claims
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Outgoing Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said there is "no basis" for Indian plaintiffs seeking an accounting of their funds to claim they are owed billions for more than a century of mismanagement.

The head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs appeared in a taped interview on Wednesday's edition of "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." On a segment titled "Broken Trust," the PBS program focused on a six-year-old lawsuit that McCaleb said forced him to retire.

"I have never deceived anyone," he told Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Television. "I have never perpetrated fraud upon anyone, and neither has [Secretary of Interior] Gale Norton."

More than 300,000 American Indians are part of a class action that seeks an accounting of funds derived from oil, gas and other land-based activity on 11 million acres of land. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the accounting in December 1999 but even after a federal appeals court affirmed the landmark ruling, the Department of Interior delayed work for months.

Numerous problems complicate the effort: shoddy and non-existent records, a lack of adequate computer systems and tens of thousands of unresolved land ownership cases. But McCaleb said there was no evidence to suggest the account holders haven't been paid.

"There's no basis for any of this," he said, responding to claims of billions owed. "I mean, if I were an account holder, I'd say, 'Well, golly, I've got $1,000. Maybe I should have gotten $2,000.'"

He added: "Maybe we've overpaid it $2 billion. I don't think so, but, you know, there's no evidence to the contrary."

McCaleb's statements appear to contradict ones he made earlier this year about the dispute. In a phone interview with Sam Donaldson of ABC News, he said he couldn't "refute" any dollar figure cited by the plaintiffs and said a settlement was the way to go.

"The BIA has never been able to honestly say they could do an accurate historical accounting," he said in February.

To James Kennerly, a Blackfeet Nation tribal member who appeared on the program, there was no question that account holders have been cheated. He said he has received little money from five oil wells that have drilled his family's land since the 1930s.

"Because this oil and gas royalty, look at, three cents! Three cents, eight cents," he said. "That's ridiculous. It's just totally a rip-off."

Bush administration officials unveiled a plan in June to account for more than 500,000 past and present trust accounts. They said it would cost at least $2.4 billion and take 10 years.

Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, in testimony to Congress, has also disputed claims of billions owed. He said the government has indeed paid the account holders and settling the case would mean they would be paid twice.

The Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust was initiated in 1887 and the government admits that $13 billion has passed through the system since 1909. None of it has been accounted for.

On January 6, 2003, the Interior has to submit a plan to account for the entire fund. A trial to advance the accounting is set for May.

Also due in January is a plan for the Interior to fulfill its trust obligations to the account holders. The plan must specify the standards by which the accounts will be managed.

"Broken Trust" on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:
Transcript | Audio | Video

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