FROM THE ARCHIVE

White House refusing Indian trust access

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MONDAY, AUGUST 26, 2002

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is refusing to testify about her role in the recent ouster of a federal official who questioned her claims of progress in fixing the broken Indian trust fund, the latest attempt by the Bush administration to restrict oversight of the growing debacle.

Attorneys for 500,000 American Indians subpoenaed Norton and other government officials and attorneys as part of an expanding probe into the resignation of Tom Slonaker. He left the his post as special trustee for American Indians late last month, citing pressure from the White House over his attempt to tell the truth about money owed to Indian beneficiaries.

The depositions were to start on Friday but last week, the Department of Justice said the matter was beyond court review. "Plaintiffs' attempts to explore the basis for the President's decision and to impose consequences on the executive branch for his action is plainly barred," the August 21 court filing stated.

The move marks the Bush administration's ongoing push to limit oversight of Indian trust. Since May, Department of Interior officials and their attorneys have been refusing to cooperate with a court investigator they say is biased.

Last month, the White House supported legislation that would have limited an accounting of funds owed to Indian account holders. The House rejected the provision by an overwhelming 281 to 144 vote on July 18.

The White House also has balked at bringing greater accountability to the management of Indian trust assets. Tribal leaders have asked for an independent commission that mirrors provisions in a corporate fraud bill that President Bush quickly signed into law on July 30.

Slonaker broke with his superiors on these and other issues. He told a Senate committee on July 25 that a proposed accounting of Indian funds wasn't possible due to lost records and inadequate data.

And while a Bush appointee voiced silence on the controversial House bill, Slonaker said he opposed it. Along with tribes, he too has supported greater accountability throughout the Interior.

Slonaker has blamed his firing on his candid views. "The law requires me to tell the truth about the condition of trust reform to both the Secretary as well as the Congress," he said in an interview last month.

Although Norton won't testify in court, she may be forced to answer to Congress. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee are considering opening their own investigations into Slonaker's ouster.

In addition to Norton, attorneys for Indian account holders want to depose Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and Indian Trust Transition Director Ross Swimmer. Three government attorneys -- Kyle Sampson of the White House and Kelly Johnson and Jeffrey Clark of the Department of Justice -- have been subpoenaed.

Tribal leaders and Interior officials are meeting this week in Alaska to try and hammer out a resolution to the independent oversight issue. Talks so far have not resulted in an agreement.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

Related Stories:
Court monitor has secret document (8/8)
McCain calls for trust fund investigation (8/5)
Editorial: What Norton doesn't want to hear (8/5)
Slonaker: Gale Norton 'has no clothes' (8/1)
Slonaker cites White House pressure (7/31)
'He did the best he could' (7/31)
Interior won't respond to Slonaker (7/31)
Slonaker leaves Bush administration (7/30)
Corporate fraud v. Indian fraud (7/29)
No agreement on trust reform (7/29)
Slonaker objects to House bill (7/26)