FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2002 Just about a year ago, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton went before tribal leaders and Congress to tell them reforming Indian trust was one of her top priorities. The timing was auspicious. In making her first public appearance as head of her department, Norton chose the National Congress of American Indians for her debut. A day later, a federal appeals court unanimously upheld a ruling which declared the government in breach of trust to 300,000 American Indians. Reiterating U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's December 1999 decision, the appeals court said the beneficiaries were owed an historical accounting of their money "without regard to when the funds were deposited." And just days after that, Norton chose the Senate Indian Affairs Committee for her first testimony to Congress. Giving them the same message about reform, she said she would move forward with a controversial and costly statistical sampling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Since then, Norton's message, and grip on the debacle, have unraveled. An internal memo declaring that trust reform was "imploding" led to the installment of a court monitor, a unique judicial officer whose reports continue to sting the Bush administration. An investigation by the court's special master set the stage for a still unresolved shutdown of the department's Internet services. Her special trustee, the department's top reform official, appeared to revolt. Then weeks later, she announced a dramatic restructuring that tribes have unanimously opposed. And, in what would tie everything back to Norton's first action on the trust, Lamberth later called her approval of the sampling "so clearly contemptuous" that he wondered why he should even hold a trial that is now just wrapping up. This week, Norton got a chance to explain what happened. I didn't really understand that memo . .
According to Norton, however, her decision to approve the sampling wasn't what it appeared to be. "I didn't really understand that memo as making a choice on the various models of accounting," she told Lamberth on Wednesday. When she took over in late January 2001, Norton said she wondered why no action was taken by the Clinton administration on the historical accounting. Signing off on the sampling, she said, was meant to "send a message that we weren't going to sit around" and just do nothing. "Without realizing that [the memo] might be viewed as contrary to anything that this court had said," she continued, "I basically signed it and said get busy, go ahead and start moving on this activity." Months later, she changed her mind in response to criticism from court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer and created the Office of Historical Trust Accounting in July. I think I actually first became aware of that through news articles. . .
The same day the appeals court decision came down, Dom Nessi, the Bureau of Indian Affairs chief information officer at the time, wrote a scathing memo to Special Trustee Tom Slonaker and said the department's blueprint to trust reform was built on "rosy projections" that could never be met. Norton never knew about the memo, she said, until a few weeks later when her legal team sent a copy of the document to Lamberth. "I think I actually first became aware of that through news articles and through the way in which that was reported in the press," she said. Norton also said she didn't understand till later that Nessi was a key witness in the case. "So when he said everything is imploding, it carried special weight with the court, you understand," said Lamberth. " I can see how that would be the case," she responded. About a month after the document was made public, Lamberth installed Kieffer at the department. I've had a hard time pinning down exactly what his concerns are. . .
Lamberth's 1999 ruling required the department to produce quarterly reports on the status of reform, a task Slonaker took oversight of when he joined the government in the summer of 2000. But as time went on, he grew increasingly concerned with their quality, leading to his refusal to certify the 7th report last fall. Norton, however, testified she didn't really understand his objections. "[H]e said the report was not complete and was inaccurate," Norton said, "and then I couldn't quite get from him what he thought was incomplete or inaccurate in that report, and so I wished he had been more specific in helping me understand that a little sooner." "My initial reaction to his statement that the report was inaccurate and incomplete was that he was in charge of preparing the report, so why couldn't he write a report that was accurate and complete," she added. Kieffer then blasted Norton for submitting the report anyway, and she told Lamberth that she now agreed it was not a true reflection of the status of trust reform at the time. "I believe that it was an insufficient picture," she said. One thing that I suffer from is not having seen the actual report. . .
Last week, Lamberth criticized Norton for seeking to make public a report containing private information about Indian account holders. In an order, he said she violated her trust responsibilities by simply asking to release it to Congress. "So I don't see the concern as a trustee . . . that I think a trustee has to have," said Lamberth. "Do you understand?" Norton didn't directly answer the question and said she is trying to balance different interests: one to protect the privacy of beneficiaries and the other to make changes to the trust system. When asked if she agreed she was violating her duties, she only said: "One thing that I suffer from is not having seen the actual report to know how much personal information is contained in that report." Lamberth is set to make a finding of contempt on the charges she and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb face within the next few weeks. Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://126.96.36.199/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp Related Stories:
Norton tries to convince judge on trust reform (2/14)
Norton says plaintiffs' accounting complete (2/14)
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