FROM THE ARCHIVE

Court asked to reject Bush accounting plan

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MONDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 2003

The plaintiffs in the billion dollar trust fund lawsuit filed court papers on Friday challenging the Bush administration's attempt to limit an accounting owed to more than 500,000 American Indians.

Despite two court rulings affirming the right to an accounting, the plaintiffs said the Department of Interior still hasn't gotten the message. Characterizing Secretary Gale Norton's proposal to spend $335 million over five years as "woefully inadequate," they called on a federal judge to reject it.

"There is no good faith evident in defendants' historical plan to fulfill finally their fiduciary obligation to account," the 67-page filing stated. "Instead, defendants have filed yet another plan to evade their trust duties to the individual Indian trust beneficiaries; it is likely that this plan will also never reach fruition as defendants are clearly hoping that Congress will bow to their persistent lobbying and purport to legislate away their obligation to provide an accurate and complete historical accounting – maybe even the trust itself."

The criticism comes as Norton is to unveil her department's spending plans for fiscal year 2004. The Bush administration is asking for an historic increase in trust reform, in part to conduct historical accountings owed to individual Indians, who are part of the seven-year-old Cobell lawsuit, and tribes, some of whom have filed their own separate claims.

The Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, created in 1887 to manage oil, gas, timber and other land-based activity, is the subject of a plan Norton submitted on January 6 to a federal judge. In it, she backed away from an earlier proposal to spend $2.4 billion over ten years to account for the funds.

But in doing so, she imposed several limits that would cut off tens of thousands of beneficiaries. Cited by the plaintiffs, these include deceased account holders, those who voluntarily participated in a land consolidation plan the Bush administration wants to expand, those who receive "direct pay" of their trust funds and those whom the government can't identify.

Norton is also excluding an accounting of the land held in trust for beneficiaries. "More than forty-three million acres of trust land has vanished from the Individual Indian Trust – some presumably authorized, but most obviously in unauthorized and undocumented transactions – yet there is no plan to detect, identify, reconstruct or account for these unrecorded and unidentified non-financial assets," the plaintiffs wrote.

On Friday, Tex Hall, an IIM beneficiary and President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) said identification of the non-financial assets was crucial. "When you finally receive a grazing check, you will get nothing that determines where it came from," he said. "Did it come from this 40-acre tract, did it come from this 160-acre tract? There's no definition."

Norton's plan also assumes that the funds passed down through generations of account holders are accurate. But Hall pointed out that the probate system is backlogged. By the government's own admission, there are more than 30,000 estates waiting to be resolved.

"Where does that money go? Who gets the money?" he asked. "We don't have any reports."

Separately, the plaintiffs filed a response to Norton's proposal to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Special Trustee. "Nowhere in the Compliance Plan is there evidence that they even understand what a fiduciary responsibility entails," they wrote.

The government submitted responses to the plaintiff's alternative proposals and filed three motions for summary judgment to limit the trust fund accounting.

Relevant Documents:
Plaintiffs Historical Accounting Response | Plaintiffs Opposition to Government's Reform Plan

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:
Norton's plan faces court scrutiny (1/27)
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)
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