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Cason concludes testimony in Cobell trust trial
Friday, October 12, 2007
Filed Under: Cobell

The Bush administration only plans to account for about half of the money in the Indian trust fund, a senior official testified on Thursday.

In December 1999, the Interior Department was ordered to account for "all funds" in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. A federal appeals court upheld the ruling in February 2001.

But the Bush administration's latest accounting plan appears to fall short of that goal. Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior, said only 50 to 55 percent of the money in the IIM trust will be reconciled.

On his last day on the stand, Cason also defended the government's management of the trust. He said the accounting work so far -- which is largely based on electronic data from 1985 through the present -- has turned up no "systemic" errors.

"Generally, the system works very well," Cason testified under cross-examination by the Cobell plaintiffs.

But Cason was forced to admit the department has never fulfilled at least one of its duties to Indian landowners. "It's my understanding that we've never had a regular, periodic accounting," he said.

The Indian trust was created in the late 1800s as a result of the allotment of tribal lands to individual Indians. Since the early 1900s, the government says around $11.7 billion has passed through the system. The plaintiffs say at least $13 billion, and possibly more, has been received.

Some Interior officials, including Special Trustee Ross Swimmer, have asserted that the government has always had a duty to account for these funds. Cason didn't necessarily think that was the case when asked about the lack of prior reconciliation of the IIM trust.

"The Department of the Interior did not anticipate 100 years later that we would have to do this kind of accounting," he said.

But the department did anticipate that Indian landowners would have to pay some of the services they receive from the government. Although Cason and other officials have characterized the trust as a "free" system, he admitted to a "handful" of administrative fees.

"In large part, we don't charge fees" except for a "few cases," Cason said. The administration's May 2007 historical accounting plan, however, won't tell Indian landowners how much they have paid the government, Cason acknowledged.

Cason also said the plan doesn't address an unresolved U.S. Supreme Court decision. In 1997, the justices said Interior violated the constitutional rights of Indian landowners by forcing them to give up their property without just compensation.

The Youpee case affected property owned by about 18,000 individual Indians in the Great Plains and the Midwest. Due to fractionation and probate proceedings, the department has estimated that 775,000 land interests need to be resolved.

"I don't know the exact figure," Cason said. "They're very tiny interests."

The department could revert the interests back to their proper owners or compensate them, Cason said. But when asked whether any final decisions about the Youpee interests have been made, he replied "No."

"We're not doing an accounting for land," he added.

After a few rebuttal questions from the Department of Justice, Cason concluded his testimony yesterday morning. The government called its next witness, Kathy Ramirez, an employee of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.

Ramirez works at the American Indian Records Repository in Lenexa, Kansas, where millions of records that are being used for the historical accounting are stored. "It's in a cave," she told the court.

Ramirez testified about the massive indexing and retrieval system at the AIRR. "I think it's rather impressive," she said of the overall facility, which houses several government agencies as well as commercial entities.

Ramirez didn't have any specific knowledge about the historical accounting of the IIM trust. Her testimony was mainly limited to record keeping practices and a photo presentation of the AIRR.

Judge James Robertson, a Clinton appointee who was assigned the case late last year after the removal of Judge Royce Lamberth, has expressed an interest in seeing the facility as part of the trial.

The next witness was Michelle Herman, one of the many consultants who has been hired by the government as part of the Cobell case. She took the stand late in the day on Thursday.

The proceedings are set to resume today. Robertson has set aside Fridays to address motions, legal issues and administrative matters. Testimony from witnesses is expected to take place Mondays through Thursdays.

Trial Transcripts:
Day 1 AM | Day 1 PM | Day 2 AM

Court Decisions:
Cobell v. Norton [District Court] | Cobell v. Norton [Appeals Court] | Babbitt v. Youpee [Supreme Court]

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm

Related Stories:
Cobell accounting trial opens in DC (10/11)
Cobell historical accounting trial starts in DC (10/10)
CFO Magazine: The Indian trust fund accounting (10/5)
Cobell historical accounting trial starts October 10 (10/1)
BIA agency lacks accounting for millions in trust (09/25)
Audit finds Indian trust management problems (9/24)
Cobell: Upcoming trial tackles important issues (09/19)
Interior attorney to testify at upcoming Cobell trial (9/18)
DOI won't release trust data in Cobell case (9/11)
Interior attorney accused of disclosing trust data (08/29)
Judge opens electronic data to Cobell plaintiffs (07/10)
Another Cobell historical accounting hearing (7/9)
Judge expresses views on Indian trust fund accounting (06/19)
Hearing on Cobell historical accounting trial (6/18)
Cobell prepares for court battle on accounting (5/30)
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Judge prods DOI on Indian trust fund accounting (5/15)
First status conference for Cobell accounting trial (5/14)
Cobell status conference pushed back to May 14 (05/02)
Attorney calls $7B Cobell offer pennies on dollar (4/24)
Cobell heads to landmark accounting trial (4/23)
Judge orders Cobell accounting trial for October 10 (4/20)
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Editorial: No justice in $7B offer to settle Cobell (4/6)
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NewStandard: Tribes turn to court over trust funds (01/08)
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