Norton: Trust reform blueprint 'obsolete'
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In a dramatic reversal that leaves her operating without a safety net, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has scrapped her department's guide to correcting more than a century of trust asset mismanagement.

Saying that the High Level Implementation Plan (HLIP) is "obsolete," Norton informed a federal judge this week of the decision in a status report she was ordered to sign personally. "The HLIP is now outdated," she plainly told U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth.

"Many of its identified activities have been designated as being completed," she continued, "however, little material progress is evident. More fundamentally, the HLIP does not reflect an adequately coordinated and comprehensive view of the trust reform process."

Norton's revelation comes as little surprise, as the state of the blueprint had been in doubt ever since she announced, to unanimous opposition in Indian Country, a major restructuring of trust duties in mid-November. Prior to the unveiling, trust reform had been under considerable review since the summer of 2001, when the department hired a management consulting firm, EDS Corporation, to assess the effort that was first launched by the Clinton administration in July 1998.

But the decision to scrap the HLIP entirely represents a significant step in the transformation of trust under the Bush administration. Key officials -- including Special Trustee Tom Slonaker and Assistant Secretary, the two individuals most responsible for protecting, managing and preserving more than $3 billion in tribal and individual Indian assets on 54 million acres of land -- were publicly pledging their support for the Clinton-drafted document.

At the same time, though, officers of Lamberth's court were leading an assault on the state of reform. In blistering critiques of progress as defined by the HLIP, special master Alan Balaran and court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III repeatedly questioned the accuracy, completeness and truthfulness of information being reported to the court.

The attack forced Norton to retreat in a number of areas, including her affirmation of a Clinton decision to conduct a statistical sampling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust despite mandates otherwise from Congress and the court. Eighteen months after Lamberth's December 21, 1999, landmark ruling, Norton last July finally acted to provide Indian beneficiaries with an historical accounting of their funds, although a plan to do so is still not known.

Lest the culmination of all the activity be taken as a step forward, however, the rejection of the trust blueprint unwittingly places Norton exactly where critics note predecessor Bruce Babbitt failed. Paul Homan, the Interior's first Special Trustee who quit after a protracted battle with Babbitt over funding and support, in 1997 had prepared exactly what Norton is now proposing to develop in consultation with Indian Country, Congress and trust industry experts -- a "management strategic plan."

The change also has Norton asking Lamberth and Indian Country to let her go forward on principle alone, a risky move since Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, later in the report, acknowledges tribes are rebuffing the reorganization. She offers no timeline on her strategy, and notes: "The work cannot be accomplished overnight."

The other lingering question is the money spent on a plan now deemed by Norton to be obsolete. "This is an admission that after $614 million, trust reform has failed," said Dennis Gingold, an attorney representing the IIM class action in Lamberth's court, of the policy shift.

The Bush administration received an additional $228.6 million to continue reform efforts in fiscal year 2002.

Get the Report:
Status Report to the Court Number Eight (1/16)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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