Norton challenges trust fund monitor
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Despite repeated assurances that she welcomes the oversight of court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is challenging his findings that her department has done little to provide an accurate accounting of the funds owed to an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country.

In court papers filed earlier this month, government lawyers protest a number of Kieffer's criticisms. A 50-page report he issued in July, his first since being appointed to watch over the Interior, laid harsh charges against the present and past administrations.

In response, the Bush administration has been placed in a curious position. Not only are government attorneys praising Norton's "leadership" and "commitment" to fixing the broken trust fund, they are defending decisions made by her predecessor Bruce Babbitt.

Among the challenges raised is whether the government has ever been ordered to provide Indian account holders with an accurate reporting of their money. Norton, attorneys argue, "is in complete agreement . . . that an accounting to the Individual Indian Money (IIM) beneficiaries is long overdue."

But they vehemently dispute the notion that US District Judge Royce Lamberth -- and a federal appeals court who upheld his landmark December 1999 ruling -- has ever "explicitly" required the government to provide the type of transaction-by-transaction reconciliation desired by most account holders.

"Indeed, the Interior was required to move forward in a responsible and deliberate fashion to design an accounting," admit government lawyers in the August 10 filing. But they add that nothing in Lamberth's ruling "order[s] an accounting."

Nevertheless, government lawyers say Norton has made progress on providing the accounting. She has established an Office of Historical Trust Accounting which should "accelerate, not delay" her trust responsibilities to Indians, they claim.

Despite claiming progress, Norton is defending the Clinton administration's decision to appeal the case. Kieffer had criticized the government for waiting more than a year to even begin the process of an accounting -- claiming Babbitt and his subordinates hatched a misguided statistical sampling plan as a delay tactic believing they'd win the appeal.

But Norton's attorneys argue the appeal was more than appropriate. Even though a federal appeals court in February ruled against the government, attorneys are continuing to argue that there were "legitimate reasons" to press it.

The Bush administration, however, has since declined to ask the Supreme Court to review the ruling. Norton has since dropped statistical sampling as the sole method to provide an accounting although she had approved it as one of her first official actions.

Norton's protests come in the wake of even more criticism from Kieffer. A day before government attorneys filed their response to his first report, Kieffer blasted the Interior for hiding the problems of a $40 million trust fund software system from the court.

They also come as Solicitor Bill Myers, Norton's top legal advisor, has asked the Interior to investigate allegations of misconduct of government attorneys and senior management. Although the request has been welcomed by the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit, they aren't expecting much out of it.

"It's important that a small step has been taken," said Dennis Gingold, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, "but it has been downplayed. The trust is in worse shape today than the day we filed the case."

In addition to the 17-page pleading deatiling Norton's objections, the Interior has submitted two boxes of reports and information detailing how they might proceed with an historical accounting. Norton's new office is headed by Bert T. Edwards, a former State Department official under President Clinton.

Get Lamberth's 1999 Ruling and Order:
Cobell v. Norton (December 1999)

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

Related Stories:
Internal trust fund investigation sought (8/22)
Court report criticizes trust fund software (8/10)
Trust fund holders want trial against Bush officials (8/7)
Court monitor sets sights on software system (8/1)
Interior cited for destroyed e-mails (7/30)
Norton slammed by trust fund monitor (7/12)