Norton hit on trust fund mess
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MARCH 1, 2001

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Wednesday was hit on all sides of the trust fund debate as Senators urged action on the growing debacle and the plaintiffs in the billion dollar lawsuit against the federal government criticized her latest decision.

In an appearance before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, her first before Congress, Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo) criticized Norton's department for what he called a "national disgrace." He was joined by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz), who said the Interior's handling as "the grossest kind of mismanagement" and pushed for a settlement of the issue.

"We are talking billions here," said McCain. "I applaud the decision of the courts. If I were you, I would find out where you are going to get that kind of money. And we still haven't solved the problem."

Still new to the job, Norton accepted the words of the two Committee members. Her Department scrambling from last week's appellate court decision favoring the plaintiffs in the trust fund lawsuit, Norton said the Interior takes the ruling "seriously."

Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker and the lead plaintiff in the case, had a harsh prediction if Norton didn't.

"I don't think Secretary Norton can take this lightly," said Cobell. "If she doesn't get on this right away, she'll be the next in contempt of court."

Former Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin were all held in contempt of court by Judge Royce Lamberth in 1999. And judging by Norton's decision to accept a controversial sampling approved by Babbitt, Cobell said it looks like business as usual for the Interior.

"With this directive, she is picking up right where her predecessor, Mr. Babbitt, left off," said Cobell. "She cannot be listening to the old guard [like Babbitt]. The old guard is the one that got everyone in trouble by not taking this seriously."

In a December 2000 memorandum, Babbitt approved a project to conduct a statistical analysis on just 350 accounts, or 0.01 percent of the estimated 300,000 accounts held by American Indians all over the country. But Cobell and the plaintiffs claim this will only waste $70 million in taxpayer funds and has little chance of fixing the historically mismanaged system.

"Statistical sampling as a means of settling hundreds of thousands of mismanaged individual Indian trust accounts is doomed to failure, since most of the documents needed for an accurate sample already have been destroyed by the government," said Cobell.

The government itself doesn't know exactly how much the analysis will cost, either. The Special Trustee of American Indians, the Interior office charged with trust responsibilities, said it could cost $50,000 to $200,000 per account, leading to anywhere between $17.5 million and $70 million in funds needed to carry out Norton's decision.

President George W. Bush on Wednesday released his budget blueprint and said "additional funding" for trust reform will be included for fiscal year 2002. According to a memorandum Gover wrote before he left office, the $27.6 million trust reform budget would have to be doubled and the BIA would have to "significantly" increase its staff.

But Cobell wasn't worried about budget woes and said she will continue to fight for what rightfully belongs to American Indians.

"This is money that belong to Indian people," said Cobell. "What makes them think they can treat a group of people like this? Its the worst case of genocide we've ever seen. They are trying to terminate us."

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Babbitt -

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