FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush threatens appeal on $483 breach of trust

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WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 2, 2002

Bush administration attorneys last month suggested they might challenge an Indian trust fund ruling if resolution of the 30-year-old dispute doesn't go their way.

In court papers, the U.S. Attorney's office in South Dakota expressed disagreement with a recent court decision made in favor of Sioux tribal members. A federal judge said about 1,900 Indian beneficiaries were owed an extra $483 for money they have been denied since the 1970s.

Government attorneys, however, don't want the Department of Interior to pay out interest on the $483 amount. A September 16 court filing stated an intent to preserve the issue "on appeal."

But they also had a bone to pick with U.S. District Judge Lawrence M. Piersol's reliance on trust standards to restore justice to the plaintiffs. "The court holds that the defendant breached its trust duties by unreasonably delaying the . . . distribution," he wrote in his July 29 ruling.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan L. Holmgren of South Dakota countered that there was no "mismanagement" of the money in question "but rather a failure to make any disbursement at all." Awarding the plaintiffs money for the delay is unlawful, she argued.

The maneuvering is the latest in a drawn-out saga that has pitted the interests of the federal government against those of tribes and individual Indians. Congress in 1972 created a $5.9 million fund to compensate four Sioux tribes and Sioux tribal members for stolen land.

The tribes received their share of the money, thanks to political pressure put on Congress and the Interior. But the tribal members have never been paid and at one point, tribal leaders lobbied against the individual Indians.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Casimir Lebeau, now 84. He worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs yet never got an answer from the agency as to the status of his share of the fund. He is owed at least $1,900.

Additional delays are in sight due to the Bush administration's stance on trust. Top officials, including Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, won't acknowledge the standards by which Indian money and assets are to be managed.

Attempts by tribes to force the issue resulted in an impasse. Department of Justice and White House officials oppose legislation on trust standards for fear of additional litigation.

Also, the administration is waiting on the outcome of two cases before the Supreme Court. The Navajo Nation claims $600 million is owed for a breach of trust while the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona claims $14 million.

Citing those disputes, government attorneys tried to delay Lebeau's case. Piersol rejected the request in August.

If a challenge is mounted, it would land in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Recent Court Documents:
Plaintiffs' Interest Calculation (9/30) | DOJ Threat of Appeal (9/16)

Additional Court Filings:
Court Order Denying Stay (8/15) | Plaintiff's Request for Interest (8/14) | DOJ Request for Stay (8/13) | Lebeau v. U.S. (7/29)

Related Stories:
Bush officials break with tribes on trust (9/27)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Peabody battles tribe on trust (9/4)
Interior fights $435 breach of trust ruling (8/21)
Trust fund plaintiffs get ruling (8/16)
U.S. argues limits as trustee (8/9)
Legal tactics land Peabody in hot seat (7/22)
Griles slammed for ignorance (7/12)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)