FROM THE ARCHIVE
Trust fund accounting plan under court review
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MONDAY, JANUARY 27, 2003

A court official for the Indian trust fund lawsuit said he will investigate the Bush administration's reform plans in part to determine why an accounting owed to more than 500,000 individual beneficiaries is being limited.

In a letter sent on Friday to a government attorney, special master-monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III said he is "increasing" his scrutiny of the Department of Interior. He requested dozens of documents, correspondence and other information related to Secretary Gale Norton's proposed accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.

"My review will encompass developments in the progress of the historical accounting project," he wrote.

The IIM trust is at the center of a seven-year-old lawsuit that represents American Indians all over the country. Despite two court rulings in their favor to account for their money -- "without regard to when the funds were deposited," as U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote in December 1999 -- the Clinton and Bush administrations have failed to move the effort forward significantly.

That changed, in the eyes of Norton, when she established an office to investigate and carry out her fiduciary responsibilities. Last July, the Office of Historical Trust Accounting (OHTA) released a plan to spend at least $2.4 billion over at least 10 years to fulfill court orders and federal law.

Earlier this month, however, OHTA revised its workload and said it would only cost $335 million and take five years to conduct a much more limited accounting.

As part of his probe, Kieffer wants to figure out why. He requested documents to explain why the Interior will only account for funds from the year 1938 even though the trust was created in 1887; why Indian ancestors who have died aren't included; why land, mineral assets and other holdings won't be verifie; why a statistical sampling will be used for the bulk of the accounts and why certain accounts are being excluded altogether.

If successful -- Norton has advised employees not to speak directly with Kieffer while government attorneys are refusing to hand over certain documents -- the review will be the largest and most comprehensive to date. In two earlier reports, one of which spurred the creation of OHTA, Kieffer described the accounting barely at the "starting gates."

Although Norton has cited her moves as progress, Indian beneficiaries have criticized her plans. National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall, an IIM account holder from North Dakota called Norton's limits unacceptable.

"That's absolutely crazy. That's what a trustee has to do," he said. "If we had our trust assets taken care of by a private trustee, they would account not only for the money but where it came from. They have to verify those dollars are derived from a trust asset."

The Interior admits that at least $13 billion has passed through the system since 1909 but can't verify the figure. The department also said there have been at 700,000 beneficiaries to the trust but will only account for the funds owed to about 260,000.

But of those, only some will receive a transaction-by-transaction accounting, which the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries have demanded. The department contends that funds derived from oil, gas, timber and other land-based activity are too difficult to reconcile so they will be sampled.

Two other types of accounts, per capita and judgment, will undergo a transaction-by-transaction analysis. Department official have described this as a very simple effort.

Per capita accounts represent payments made to individual members of tribes. Judgment accounts are derived from cash settlements with the federal government.

Get the Story:
Special Master-Monitor Letter (January 24, 2003)

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

Related Stories:
Tribes debate response to trust reform plans (01/13)
Standards guide reform effort (1/8)
What happened to all the land? (1/8)
Congressman accuses Norton of 'stealth' moves (1/8)
Sioux chairman calls BIA talks a 'sham' (1/8)
Cobell trust reform plans filed (1/7)
Norton to fight IIM accounting (1/7)
Norton won't account for assets (1/6)
McCaleb learned about trust 'on the job' (12/23)
Lamberth slams claimed accounting (12/23)
Edwards: Slonaker changed mind on accounts (12/23)
McCaleb challenges trust accounting claims (12/19)