Senate panel grills Griles on trust fund
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Setting up a pattern of showdowns between Congress and the Bush administration, yet another Department of Interior official on Tuesday faced the fire over the trust fund debacle.

It could have been Secretary Gale Norton who went before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but instead it was her second-in-command J. Steven Griles who had to answer to the latest round of questions. As Norton was returning from her Olympic-sized weekend in Utah, the chairman and ranking member of the panel that confirmed both officials used the budget hearing to take the department to task for recent events.

For chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), his concern centered on the Internet shutdown that has crippled the department for more than two months. Representing a large number of Navajo tribal members who have gone without critical royalty payments since November, he has been pushing Norton and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to send out checks for nearly a month.

"In my state," he said, "this has caused some substantial impacts on many people who depend on those BIA payments."

Bingaman finally got his answer when Griles announced oil and gas checks would be manually calculated and distributed as soon as possible. Spokesperson Jude McCartin later said Bingaman realized the fix was only temporary but a solution nonetheless.

More pressing for ranking member Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) was Norton's contempt trial and the seemingly endless failure to correct long-standing problems. He was harsh in his criticism of the BIA and said the Bush administration should "contract" its trust duties.

"At what point do you face up to reality that the BIA is incapable of that function?" he said. "I don't know how many times you have to bounce your head against the wall before figure out that this is not something that the BIA is capable of doing in a responsive manner."

"I don't have a beef with anybody," he continued, saying that "tribes deserve a reasonable accounting."

In response, Griles said the department was still grappling with ways to fix the problem. He said Norton has proposed to create the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) to handle both tribal and individual trusts but said the new entity has been "uniformly rejected" by Indian Country.

Some of that wrath was felt last week when Norton testified before the House Resources Committee. But with at least three more Congressional committees set to hold hearings on trust management and reform, department officials won't see the end of it any time soon.

Later this month, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold an oversight hearing on the debacle in response to tribal outcry over the reorganization. Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and vice-chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) helped put a stop to a $300 million "reprogramming" request to divert existing funds to BITAM.

The House Interior Appropriations subcommittee is holding two hearings on the Interior in the coming weeks as well. Like yesterday's hearing, one will focus on the fiscal year 2003 budget. Norton is expected to testify.

The second hearing will look at the budget for the Office of the Special Trustee and the BIA, which are seeing an $83.6 million increase in funds for trust activities. In March 2001, Special Trustee Tom Slonaker and Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell, in the wake of the infamous "imploding" memo, told the subcommittee that a $40 million trust accounting system could still be salvaged and that trust reform was working.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Interior changes mind on payments (2/13)

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

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