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Trust
Interior delays latest trust reform regulations


The Bush administration has delayed action on its trust reform regulations amid a controversial proposal to end the federal government's management responsibilities.

The regulations were first published in the Federal Register in August. They focus on probate, land title, land conveyances and other issues related to the management of the 55-million acre Indian estate.

But those duties would effectively be wiped away under a Bush plan that would dramatically alter the Indian trust relationship. The administration has proposed to end the federal government's management duties within 10 years.

Tribes and individual Indians have long sought more control over decisions affecting their trust assets. But since the proposal would take the federal government off the hook for past and future mismanagement claims, it has been met with resistance in Indian Country.

"The most profoundly unfair part of this proposal is that the government would actually attempt to end all potential liability for mismanagement on the date of enactment, not only for past conduct, but all future malfeasance," said Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the landmark trust fund lawsuit. "In essence, the government would like to provide themselves a blank check to commit fraud or theft and have no liability."

Cobell's lawsuit, filed in 1996, covers the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. About $13 billion has passed through the trust since the early 1900s but the federal government has failed to account for the money as required of a trustee.

The case doesn't affect assets held in trust for tribal governments but the Bush administration is pushing Congress to settle all tribal and individual claims. A "briefing paper" released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last week outlines proposals to phase out the government's responsibilities and force consolidation of Indian lands.

"To gain support for a multi-billion dollar bill, it may be necessary to incorporate significant changes to the management system for Indian trust assets," the document states.

Senate staff have held three meetings in Indian Country to solicit input on the proposed changes. But one meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had to be postponed and another in Washington, D.C., that was set for November 9 has been canceled and replaced with a "tribal leaders" discussion on November 16.

Two more meetings -- one in Bismarck, North Dakota, and another in Portland, Oregon -- are being held on Thursday and Friday of this week.

As for the trust management rules published back in August, they are now being put off until next year at the earliest. In a notice published in today's Federal Register, the Interior Department reopened the public comment period.

Comments can now be submitted until January 2, 2007. The period was extended to "ensure that all interested parties, including tribes and individual Indians, have the opportunity to review the proposed rule and prepare their comments," the notice states.

The rules were whittled down from more than 600 pages released by Interior around Christmas 2005. The sheer volume of the material, plus the timing, prompted complaints from tribal leaders who said the initiative was unfocused and lacking in direction.

The more contentious provisions, all related the land-into-trust process, were eventually removed after the National Congress of American Indians and tribes complained. Interior said it would consider land-into-trust rules at a later date.

November Federal Register Notice:
Notice of reopening of comment period for proposed rule | PDF Version

August Federal Register Notice:
Indian Trust Management Reform; Proposed Rule | PDF Version

Relevant Documents:
Proposed Regulation Changes (Posted by the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association)

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Intertribal Trust Fund Monitoring Association - http://www.itmatrustfunds.org
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm