Few dates provided in trust fund blueprint
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American Indian beneficiaries looking to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to fulfill her promise to "accelerate, not delay" an accounting of their funds found little concrete evidence of that goal in a draft plan her department released on Wednesday.

Although the Office of Historical Trust Accounting issued its "blueprint" on time to meet a 60-day deadline imposed by Norton, the document is only a guide that provides a framework for future work. Not until the middle of 2002, the draft states, will a comprehensive plan be finalized.

Only until the plan is complete might the Interior begin to provide an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country with an accurate balance of money they are owed.

Charged by law to do so, the Interior has yet to fulfill its most basic trust responsibility to Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders. Even after U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in December 1999 reminded the government of its duties under the American Indian Trust Reform Act of 1994, no progress has been made on the accounting.

Hoping to chart a different course than the previous administration, and prompted by increased scrutiny by Lamberth's court, Norton in recent months has made a number of changes to how the trust fund is handled. She dropped a statistical sampling plan in favor of a broader approach, appointing Bert T. Edwards -- a former member of the Clinton administration -- in July to oversee a process she acknowledges is "long overdue."

But according to the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit, she has done little different than her predecessor Bruce Babbitt. Yesterday, they reacted to the blueprint with scorn.

"It's clearly prepared by people who don't know what they are doing or don't care about the courts have ordered them to do," said lawyer Dennis Gingold of the document. "They are furthering the fraud that had been perpetrated by Babbitt."

Pushing their own schedule, the plaintiffs have asked Lamberth to order the Interior to complete the accounting by October 19 of this year -- a date, while fast approaching, that is more concrete than what Interior has proposed.

In a memo he wrote to his boss, Edwards called the blueprint "a starting point" for the accounting. Yet while he said he "intends to meet each milestone efficiently and carefully," few specific dates are provided.

The only immediate one is a November 7 deadline to identify "preliminary work" to be conducted. Beyond that, Edwards says he still needs to hire a full staff before tasks such as hiring and managing contractors can "be identified and scheduled."

The exact timing of the comprehensive plan, Edwards added, is not yet known. "Our intent is to complete the Comprehensive Plan by mid-year 2002," he wrote.

Between now and then, the Interior faces a possible trial to hold Norton and other officials in contempt of court. A hearing scheduled for today to discuss the government's response to the contempt requests has been postponed.

The plaintiffs have also asked Lamberth to schedule a January 8 trial to resume their case against the government. The trial would focus on the accounting.

Relevant Links:
Office of Historical Trust Accounting -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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