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McCain weighs GAO probe of Indian trust debacle

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) raised the possibility of a broad investigation of the Indian trust after tribal leaders on Wednesday complained about the Bush administration's reform efforts.

At an oversight hearing, McCain reiterated his view that trust reform, while a high priority, isn't the only pressing issue in Indian Country. "I intend to give it only one good shot," he said. "If it looks like we're not getting anywhere," he continued, "then I will leave that task to future Congresses and the courts."

But after listening to tribal leaders repeatedly criticize the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the expansion of the Office of Special Trustee, McCain said he might seek a full Congressional investigation. The effort would be taken up by the General Accountability Office.

"Maybe we ought to have GAO look at the whole situation and see what the deal is and what the options are," said McCain, the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "It's a pretty big task."

At the request of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), a member of the committee, the GAO already looking into OST's finances amid growing concerns over the agency's exploding budget. Since the start of the Bush administration, the office has grown into a massive bureaucracy carrying out, and overseeing, nearly every aspect of trust reform -- including a costly historical accounting -- to the tune of nearly $304 million.

McCain did not say what issues might be before a second investigation, the idea of which was raised by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the committee's vice chairman, with respect to allegations that the BIA has mismanaged individual Indian lands on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Charles Colombe, president of the tribe, testified that allottees have been cheated out of more than $100 million since the 1940s.

McCain, however, suggested that the probe might be a far-reaching in terms of the Interior Department's trust management. "I think we could also use those [allegations] to take a broader look as well," he said in response to Dorgan's query.

Since the introduction of Interior Secretary Gale Norton's disastrous BITAM proposal more than three years ago, tribes have pressed Congress to take a stronger role in trust issues. Tribes considered various tactics to stop the reorganization including litigation and suspension of appropriations.

The campaign had limited success, with some tribes gaining exemption from the reorganization and others gaining consideration for regional specific plans. Meanwhile, the Bush administration plowed ahead with costly plans aimed at fixing the system and conducting an historical accounting of the Individual Indian Money trust.

"We're basically complete with our reorganization efforts," associate deputy secretary Jim Cason told the committee yesterday.

Views of the twin efforts were unanimously negative among the tribal witnesses who testified. Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund lawyer in the Cobell v. Norton case, said "not one red cent" should be spent on an accounting based on inaccurate and incomplete information.

Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said reform was a futile endeavor without clear trust standards, enforceability in court and independent oversight of the system. "We expect that there will be a high standard of accountability and responsibility," he testified. "There really can be no other way."

Along with the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association, tribes and other organizations, NCAI is developing a "single" legislative proposal to reform the system and devise a settlement mechanism for the Cobell case. Jim Gray, chief of the Osage Nation and chairman of the ITMA board, is co-charing the discussions.

Gray said Interior Department officials have done a poor job at consulting with Indian Country and explaining the many changes they are making under the "to-be" model of trust reform. But he welcomed the involvement of Special Trustee Ross Swimmer and deputy Donna Erwin in listening sessions that ITMA held across the country last year.

"Those discussions needed to happen," Gray told the committee.

Darrell Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Nation of Washington and a representative of a group of self-governance tribes exempted from the reorganization, presented draft legislation that would implement key parts of the trust reform task force that fell apart in the fall of 2002 after the Bush administration and the Department of Justice objected to the standards, enforceability and oversight items.

The bill creates a deputy undersecretary for Indian affairs, phases out the OST and creates an independent commission. "The terminationist and paternalistic insensitivity that the OST has displayed toward the impacted tribes and the damages caused by prior mismanagement of trust funds and assets have polarized Indian tribes and leadership nationwide," Hillaire said.

The draft also calls for mediated settlement of the Cobell lawsuit, a concept Harper embraced. "Let me be clear on one point," he said. "We want to resolve this case."

Trust will remain a big issue in the coming months as the House Resources Committee focuses on settling the case and other committees take up the federal budget. There is already talk of reinstating the "midnight rider" that put a halt to the accounting for one year.

NCAI expects to have its proposal ready later this spring. "Today Indian Country heard once again the call from the Senate that this legislation is on a fast track in Congress," Hall said after the hearing.

Relevant Documents:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee Testimony (March 9, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -