FROM THE ARCHIVE
Interior promises trust fund defense
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WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31, 2001

Amid growing questions of its trustworthiness and open skepticism by a federal judge, the Department of Interior on Tuesday promised that Secretary Gale Norton and the Bush administration will prove themselves worthy of handling the broken trust fund.

But beyond the pledge of a defense, the government gave no indication of how it will do just that. And except to say it will respond to a laundry list of contempt, intimidation and misconduct charges by November 15, a spokesperson offered no specifics on how it intends to prove to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth that Norton is in charge of trust reform.

"The proof is going to be in the pudding," said Keith Parsky of the government's pending answer. "As this moves through the court process we'll be able to . . . demonstrate that we take this trust reform seriously."

Why Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb can't provide immediate proof of their dedication to the trust beneficiaries however, is a heavy matter. Parsky made note of the "substantial resources that are being committed to trust reform" and said the "entire department" is engaged.

Yet those efforts are the ones in doubt. The government's much ballyhooed guideline to reform, known as the High-Level Implementation Plan, has been criticized as a meaningless document.

A $40 million software system designed to bring the trust fund into the 21st century has been uncovered as a sham. And steps taken by Norton to "streamline" the process may do little to correct problems that have festered for more than 100 years.

Still, if the Interior can't be prodded to show how Norton and McCaleb are in charge, there is a more serious question that underscores the debate. Even without the lawsuit that has blanched both the Clinton and Bush administrations, both are charged by law -- and a long history of federal policy -- to "preserve and protect" the assets of an estimated 300,000 American Indians, said attorney Dennis Gingold.

"We think trust beneficiaries are entitled to have the same management and skill as any other business in this country," he said in an interview.

By almost any account, however, those benefits have never been provided. Since the start of the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit five years ago, the government has seen three legal defense teams, two administrations and the departure of one top-level trust fund official.

That, along with numerous court reports and opinions released in recent months, has proven more than ever, said Gingold, that the government doesn't take its trust responsibilities seriously. The trust fund is only getting worse, he asserted.

"We have never seen a situation where so much has been misstated, where so much has been misled," he told Judge Lamberth yesterday. "We believe it has to stop."

Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet banker who traveled all the way from Montana to attend Lamberth's proceedings, can't fathom why the government keeps fighting. Unless something drastic is done -- such as sending Norton and others to jail and appointing an outside caretaker for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) system -- she feels she, and others, may be stuck in a "refugee camp" forever.

"What is it about the truth that they don't want us to know?" she wondered.

"It's probably much bigger than what we've ever, ever imagined," she continued, answering a question the Interior doesn't necessarily want to consider. "They've probably gotten away with more money, more sweetheart deals that we will never ever know as Native people."

"It's totally corrupt."

How the government's latest legal team -- composed of the U.S. Attorneys office and the Department of Justice's civil division -- handles the debacle in the coming months may make or break the Bush administration. The delay the government asked Lamberth to grant didn't sit well with Gingold or Cobell but Parsky defended it as a new and improved undertaking.

"We need to bring other people in," he said, acknowledging there has been "criticism" of the environmental and natural resources lawyers who are also the target of contempt charges for their conduct.

The 11th-hour change, however, has already upset the flow of information from the Department of Justice. Spokesperson Charles Miller, who had been handling inquiries after Christine Romano left the department, said yesterday he could no longer comment about the case due to the "peculiarities" involved.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Judge ready to hold Norton in contempt (10/31)

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Trust Management Improvement Project - http://www.doi.gov/bia/trust/tmip.htm
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com

Related Stories:
Judge: Norton's actions 'contemptuous' (10/30)
Trust fund defense team scrapped (10/30)
Action on Norton urged 'on all fronts' (10/29)
Norton views broken trust fund system (10/29)

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