Advertise:   712.224.5420

Bush official won't accept claims of trust mismanagement

More than four years after taking over the White House, the Bush administration still has no proposal to resolve the Indian trust debacle, a senior official said on Wednesday.

Interior Department officials have repeatedly said trust reform is one of their top priorities. But associate deputy secretary Jim Cason testified that the administration doesn't have a plan to settle the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit and doesn't know whether a costly accounting that is taking funds away from other Indian programs will be successful.

"We haven't determined a specific solution to this," Cason told the House Resources Committee.

Cason also cast doubt on Interior's claims of progress in meeting its fiduciary obligations to Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders. The department has spent $2.9 billion in the last decade to develop computer systems, improve information technology and reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs and expand the Office of Special Trustee

"We've been at this for nine years," Cason testified. "Indian beneficiaries still don't have anything different than they did nine years ago," he said, referring to period statements they receive in the mail.

Still, Cason dismissed allegations of trust fund mismanagement as merely Indian lore handed down from generation to generation. "We don't know that it's ever been a huge mismanagement," he said.

And he adamantly refuted the notion that 500,000 IIM beneficiaries are owed billions for the handling of their funds. He said the department's ongoing accounting of the trust hasn't uncovered any major errors. He only mentioned in passing that the project so far has mostly tackled judgment and per capita accounts and not the oil, gas, grazing, timber and leasing accounts at issue in the Cobell case.

"The errors we have found are few and infrequent," Cason argued. A settlement of Cobell would be "in the relatively low millions," he added, reiterating a statement he made before the committee in July 2003.

Members of the committee, led by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), said they were frustrated with the slow pace of trust reform and the acrimonious litigation still underway in court. "It's embarrassing that the first Americans are the last in line when it comes to speedy justice," Pombo said.

Democrats and Republicans alike questioned the high cost of the initiative and whether it would resolve any of the issues of the Cobell case or of the larger trust reform debate. "This money does not belong to the American taxpayers," said Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa). "It belongs to the American Indians."

Pombo discouraged members from trying to "negotiate" a settlement to Cobell during the hearing. Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney handling the case, said the plaintiffs proposed a specific number to the administration but wouldn't disclose it, citing confidentiality pledges.

Harper, however, said Interior never responded to the plaintiffs' proposals to resolve information technology, accounting and reform issues. He said a model was proposed to replace the administration's $335 million project that is estimated to take a total of five years.

"We don't believe that an accounting is possible," Harper told the lawmakers. "Spending a dime is a waste of a dime."

Harper also said the plaintiffs are still participating in the mediation process that was set up by the House Resources Committee and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The talks began last spring but have not produced a substantive resolution.

Despite Cason's rejection of a billion-dollar settlement, the mediators at one time reported that the administration could provide "upwards of $10-15 billion" to settle the accounting and other aspects raised by the government, according to Harper's written testimony.

Pombo hopes the committee can develop a legislative solution to the case, which Harper said the plaintiffs would support as long as its fair and respects the principles of trust law. Cason said that "any other options" are on the table.

"I think this is the place where the problem needs to be solved," he said.

Over at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, new chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said yesterday that "we intend to give this Cobell issue a stab." "If it doesn't work out, we'll move on."

"The Cobell issue impacts everything else that you do," he told Cason, who appeared before the committee to testify on the fiscal year 2006 budget, "We have got to get this resolved," he said.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -