Norton says accounting complete for plaintiffs
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Wednesday championed a controversial report as providing an historical accounting for four American Indian beneficiaries, refusing to acknowledge she violated her trust duties by seeking to release it to Congress and the American public.

Although she repeatedly testified that she was not an accountant and that she hasn't actually read the report, Norton said the $20 million effort verified the account balances of four of the five named plaintiffs in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) class action. Based on her "layperson's perspective," she said auditing firm Ernst & Young matched half a million government documents to "canceled checks" of the plaintiffs.

"The account balances reconciled," she testified, alluding to the results of the court-sealed report.

At the same time, Norton acknowledged it was impossible for the government to verify whether the documents given to the accountants were accurate. According to a contract signed between the Department of Justice, whose attorneys are defending Norton, Ernst & Young assumed the information provided was complete.

"In looking back at all the records, I'm sure there are records that have been destroyed," she testified.

The report in recent weeks has been the subject of heightened debate among members of Congress, who want to know whether an accurate historical accounting can be ever be completed, and at what cost. The House Interior Appropriations subcommittee and the House Resources Committee -- over the objections of ranking Democrat Nick Rahall from West Virginia -- have asked Norton for copies.

In three different court motions, Norton's attorneys sought permission to circumvent a court order and release the report even though it contains information protected by federal privacy laws. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth last week finally rejected the request in a harshly worded decision.

"Secretary Norton has demonstrated once again her total inability to understand the role of a trustee in relation to a beneficiary by seeking to release to Congress -- knowing it will be made public -- the confidential financial information of these beneficiaries," Lamberth wrote on February 5.

With Norton on the stand, Lamberth yesterday attempted to gain more insight into why the request was made in the first place. Although Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles testified he made the decision to move on the report without consulting his boss, Lamberth was clearly interested in how Norton viewed her responsibilities as a trustee.

"It's just totally ignoring the beneficiaries," Lamberth said, challenging Norton to explain herself.

Norton, however, wouldn't acknowledge the request was "improper," as Lamberth stated last week. She only said she wished that the request "might have discussed the ways in which the information might have been protected" and said she was still interested in giving the report, in some form or another, to Congress.

Norton also testified that she only became aware recently that Special Trustee Tom Slonaker objected to the release of the report.

According to court documents, Ernst & Young created "virtual ledgers" for the IIM plaintiffs. They include: Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana; Mildred Cleghorn, the late chairwoman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma; Louis LaRose, member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska; and Earl Old Person, longtime Blackfeet tribal chairman.

The government claimed it could not find records between the years 1915 and 1999 for plaintiff Thomas Maulson, a member and longtime leader of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe of Wisconsin.

Norton told Congress last week that providing a full accounting to nearly 300,000 American Indians would cost "hundreds of millions" of dollars.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton tries to convince judge on trust reform (2/14)

Relevant Documents:
Order on Motion to Modify Protective Order (2/5) | Republicans React to Judge's Order (2/5) | Rahall Letter Opposing Request for Report (2/4) | Hansen Letter Asking for Report (1/15)

Relevant Links:
Ernst & Young -
House Resources Committee -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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House panel to hold hearings on trust fund (12/5)
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