FROM THE ARCHIVE
Objections voiced over trust fund choice
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THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2001

The Department of Interior's plan to reorganize trust reform has come under serious attack by tribal leaders, Congress and senior Bureau of Indian Affairs management, contributing to growing doubts about the Bush administration's ability to handle the debacle.

The objections have increased in intensity in recent days, just as negotiations over the plan have been taking place at the Interior. They also come as Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's defense team today will submit a response attempting to show why she and 38 other government officials, attorneys and management should not be held in contempt for their handling of the trust.

A key part of the filing is an attempt to prove the government is in charge of trust reform. To that end, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles has taken the reigns on the issue, pushing through greater cooperation and welcomed changes among department subordinates.

But it is his intention to name a close friend and controversial political appointee as the Interior's executive sponsor of $3.1 billion in tribal and individual trust assets that has sparked scorn. Associate Deputy Secretary James E. Cason has no experience on trust matters, critics in Indian Country charge, and his new-found powers might run afoul of legally-mandated responsibilities to tribes and individual Indians, tribal allies in Congress say.

"They clearly don't know what they are doing," said a Congresional aide of the proposal.

A former corporate executive who grew up in a migrant worker family harvesting produce, Cason has already been blasted by environmental groups and government watchdogs. Although he is number three in the chain of command at the Interior, his position did not require Senate confirmation -- leaving his history, expertise and record, particularly on Indian affairs, open to question.

That doesn't mean Cason, a former member of the Reagan and the first Bush administrations, is an unknown. Like Norton and Griles, he served under James Watt, President Ronald Reagan's embattled first Interior Secretary who quit over a racially-charged incident.

The blemish stuck with Cason as Democrats and a few Republicans scuttled his nomination in 1989 to a top Department of Agriculture post, questioning his opposition to protection of endangered species and his push to sell oil tracts in former Ute territory in Colorado far below market value. In rejecting him, Cason was labeled by then-Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who had jurisdiction over the post, as a "James Watt clone."

With U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ready to sanction Norton for her "contemptuous" actions, Cason's storied history appears ready to strike back at the worst time. According to sources at the Interior, he was expected to be announced as the new lead on trust management Wednesday but reservations appear to have delayed it until today.

Additionally, Norton's attorneys yesterday sent Lamberth a report prepared by EDS Corporation, a consulting firm, that identifies security breaches of the tribal and individual trust. All 1,400 tribal and about 300,000 Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts have been on the Interior's computer network for nearly two years now.

Separately, special master Alan Balaran yesterday submitted his own investigation of the Interior's security failures. Temporarily filed under seal, Lamberth is considering making the report public just as Norton hopes a "road map" EDS prepared for her will convince him that the government has the problem under control.

Cason, most recently a vice president of Unifrax Corporation, a New York corporation, was named to his post by Norton in August. Environmental groups have questioned whether his position at Interior is constitutional.

On Wednesday, the Interior said it would spend $228.6 million in fiscal year 2002 on trust management at the BIA and the Office of the Special Trustee. In total, Congress has given more than $840 million in taxpayer funds to the Interior, with additional money going to the Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice will not disclose how much money is being provided for Norton's defense in 2002.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton challenges contempt charges (11/15)

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:
Trust fund security document filed (11/14)
Interior mum on trust fund report (11/13)
Norton hires own defense lawyer (11/9)
Norton told to appoint trust fund receiver (11/7)
Griles taking lead on trust reform (11/5)
Norton's defense off to a 'bad start' (11/2)
Judge ready to hold Norton in contempt (10/31)
Interior promises trust fund defense (10/31)
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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