Interior rebuffed on historical accounting
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The Bush administration's attempt to define its obligations to 300,000 American Indians was dealt a major setback with the release of a critical document on Tuesday.

In a letter filed in federal court, the General Accounting Office (GAO) strikes down one of the Department of Interior's primary assumptions about the effort to tell Indian beneficiaries how much money they are owed. Required by law, the historical accounting has been ordered by a federal judge.

But contrary to claims made in a "blueprint" the Bush administration released last fall, no Individual Indian Money (IIM) account has ever been settled, GAO general counsel Anthony H. Gamboa said. The Department of Interior has a "misunderstanding," he said last week, which was passed onto Indian Country, Congress and the court.

"GAO did not settle the IIM accounts," he wrote on April 19, "and we are not aware of any record of certified balances of those accounts."

The letter, made public by government attorneys, puts to rest lingering doubts about the status of the IIM trust. Gamboa firmly confirms that the GAO, while having audited certain Bureau of Indian Affairs transactions between 1921 and 1951, doesn't know how much the correct account balances any more than the Interior does.

The document also corrects a misperception the department made when it broadly outlined the steps it would take to comply with U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's December 1999 order. Bert T. Edwards, a former Arthur Andersen partner tapped by Secretary Gale Norton last summer to head up the Office of Historical Trust Accounting, last September asserted the accounts were settled during the critical time frame.

Government attorneys, dating back to the Clinton administration, made similar arguments when they unsuccessfully appealed Lamberth's landmark ruling. Although Norton's new defense team withdrew the arguments, Lamberth said he would keep them on the record.

For that reason, attorneys representing the IIM beneficiaries plan to seek additional sanctions against Norton and her attorneys. "This is a problem for them," said Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund.

"It just shows again they aren't interested in discharging their duty but rather in undercutting the rightful claims of the beneficiaries," he said.

Harper added that the letter is further evidence why Norton should be held in contempt. Two of the five charges she and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb face deal with the historical accounting.

Lamberth wrapped up the contempt trial in February and has yet to make a ruling.

Edwards is planning to released an update to his blueprint in June. The document would finally provide timelines on the completion of the historical accounting.

The IIM trust dates to 1887, when Congress allotted tribal lands to thousands of individual Indians. Activities including grazing, timber harvesting and oil and gas drilling have occurred on the lands, for which the department has a fiduciary obligation to account.

Get the Letter:
Gamboa to Edwards (4/19)

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

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