Master of Jurisprudence in Indian Law - University of Tulsa College of Law
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Cobell | Opinion | Trust
Mark Trahant: Mismanagement of the Indian trust


"Perhaps the most egregious example of the do-as-we-say methodology is the government's mismanagement of American Indian trust funds. Those trust funds are payments collected on behalf of individual Indians and tribes for land leases, sales of oil, coal and other natural resources, legal judgments and interest on invested funds. The government isn't exactly sure how much it owes several hundred thousand trust fund account holders.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office says Congress has known about this problem since at least 1928. More than a decade ago, Elouise Cobell filed suit against the Department of Interior demanding a full accounting of at least a century of systematic mismanagement of those funds. About the same time, Congress enacted a new law that called for an annual audit.

That brings the story up to the present.

"Beginning with the first financial statement audit of Indian trust funds for fiscal year 1996, the Office of the Special Trustee has received a qualified audit opinion each year because of inadequacies in Interior's trust-related systems and processes, disagreements between Interior and beneficiaries on amounts owed and potential claims against the government," the GAO said.

Those disagreements range from one estimate of "zero" owed to beneficiaries to tens of billions of dollars. It's nearly impossible to narrow the range because the fund accounting is in such disarray.

Last week the government made an offer in a letter issued by the Interior secretary and the attorney general to settle the Cobell lawsuit for $7 billion paid over 10 years without interest. The deal would require tribes and individual Indians to drop their claims against the government for mismanagement."

Get the Story:
Mark Trahant: Do as we say with other people's money (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer 3/11)

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