BITAM not needed Norton's attorneys say
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A new agency aimed at handling the $3.1 billion in assets belonging to hundreds of tribes and thousands of American Indians is not absolutely necessary, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's legal team has admitted.

Although Norton told Congress earlier this month that her proposal to create the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) is "superior" to several alternatives proposed by tribes, her attorneys agree a complete overhaul isn't the only solution to fixing more than a century of financial mismanagement. Fixing the broken system can be achieved by simply ensuring someone is in charge, they told a federal judge.

"Even without a total reorganization, it is possible to put a senior level executive sponsor in control of trust reform," Norton's legal team wrote on February 15.

"Interior is not committed to the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management as a specific structure," the attorneys added.

Contained in a document written in response to court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer's most recent report on trust reform, the observations are somewhat a departure from Norton's public statements. On February 6, she angered tribal leaders when she said a new agency headed by its own Assistant Secretary would solve the department's woes.

"At this point, I still do remain convinced that a separate organization would be stronger," she told the House Resources Committee on February 6.

Since then, her statement has been tempered by her own appearance before a federal judge. Taking the stand in her own contempt trial on February 20, she lacked the defiant tone that characterized the contentious Congressional hearing.

Her second-in-command, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, also testified, hoping to convince U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth not to hold her in contempt for her handling of the assets of 300,000 American Indians. He said the department was making progress consulting with tribal leaders about how to find solutions to trust management.

At the same time, the pair have steadfastly refused to withdraw BITAM. Norton has repeatedly told tribal leaders she cannot take it off the table, a view reiterated by Griles when he took the stand February 7.

"There is no reason to withdraw any of them," he said. "It would be like me telling the tribal governments to pull off one of their proposals."

To tribal leaders, starting from scratch is the only way to regain the trust that was broken when BITAM was announced in mid-November without prior tribal input. National Congress of American Indians President last week told Lamberth he and others were shocked to hear Norton's views on options being developed by tribes.

"Everybody just gasped in the committee room," he said. "They just gasped . . . They were just like what did we spend 30 hours [at a department-sponsored retreat] for?"

Department officials, particularly Bureau of Indian Affairs chief Neal McCaleb, have acknowledged that the consultation process hasn't worked well as planned. But government attorneys say "much debate has been generated" and insist the department is "serious about moving forward on reorganization."

However, Norton's legal team also realizes that tribal leaders can just ask Congress to stop a planned overhaul. "If tribes chose not to be a part of such an organization, all they would have to do is convince a few in Congress to stop any action that would remove their trust from the BIA," the attorneys say.

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

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