Norton drops trust fund sampling plan
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TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2001

Reversing a decision approved in the final days of the Clinton administration, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has dropped plans to conduct a controversial and costly statistical analysis of the trust accounts owned by an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country.

Although Norton authorized the study as one of her first official actions, she has since come to realize that a sampling isn't "what the court wanted" when Judge Royce Lamberth made his landmark trust fund ruling in December 1999, Interior officials said on Monday.

And after the Bush administration in May decided not to mount a Supreme Court challenge to an appeals court ruling which upheld Lamberth's decision, it became more and more clear that a full, historical accounting was the right way to go, they added.

As a result, Norton is now taking a broader look at what can be done to reconcile the Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts to the satisfaction of Congress and account holders. Within the next two months or so, her office will come up with a different plan and will consult with all affected parties on what steps to take next.

"Let's listen to the clients, let's listen to the court and do the job we're supposed to do," said an aide to Norton.

The decision to scrap the sampling is a major victory for the Cobell v. Norton plaintiffs, who had questioned the project's feasibility. It is also a dramatic reversal of a policy approved not only by former Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, but also by Special Trustee Tom Slonaker -- a Clinton appointee whom the Bush administration has retained to oversee the trust accounts.

But even before Norton made her move -- which Interior officials said was more a gradual understanding than a sudden change of mind -- there were indications the project might not have ever succeeded. The wishes of account holders, cost, and Congressional dissatisfaction were among the obstacles facing Norton.

The Clinton administration last year conducted a series of public hearings in which the majority of account holders said they wanted a historical accounting of their funds. But due to management and funding concerns, Gover and Slonaker instead recommended a statistical analysis be considered.

A month before he left office, Babbitt agreed, with little indication of the project's total cost. Slonaker said it could cost anywhere between $27 million and $70 million to complete the task, a figure the Interior was trying to get a handle on since Norton took office in February.

Hoping to provide some guidance in the matter, Congress issued some harsh words for the government. In a report accompanying an Interior spending bill passed by the House last month, members said they were unwilling to provide funds for a sampling without assurances of success.

A spokesperson for the Interior would not comment directly on Norton's decision to drop the sampling plan. "It's certainly something we are looking at carefully," said Stephanie Hanna, who added the Secretary is planning to announce a trust fund initiative soon.

Congress has spent some $614 million to fix the trust fund accounting system, which dates back more than one hundred years.

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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