Advertise:   712.224.5420

Tribal workgroup on trust reform wraps up meetings

The final meeting of the tribal trust reform workgroup was held in Bismarck, North Dakota, on Wednesday with participants expecting legislation to fix the system and settle the Cobell lawsuit to be introduced later this month.

The National Congress of American Indians and the Intertribal Trust Fund Monitoring Association convened the workgroup in March to develop recommendations for the legislation. After hearing from scores of tribal leaders and individual landowners at four meetings, the group agreed to 46 principles to present to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The aggressive schedule came in response to a challenge by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) to give trust reform "only one good shot" during his two-year term as chairman of the committee. "If it looks like we're not getting anywhere," he said in March, "then I will leave that task to future Congresses and the courts."

Tribal leaders took McCain's words seriously as they moved forward with their effort. The workgroup principles focus on four key areas of trust reform: settlement of Cobell, reform at the Interior Department, land consolidation and trust asset mismanagement.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the committee, praised the group yesterday for meeting its goals. "We really wanted to hear from those most affected by the issue," he said. "You all have done a great job reaching out to the grassroots level and getting the thoughts of Indian Country."

The workgroup participants included the Native American Rights Fund, the non-profit organization representing more than 500,000 individual Indian landowners in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit. As part of the effort, NARF proposed legislation to settle the case, which was filed nine years ago this month, for a yet-to-be determined amount.

But the Bush administration, which was not involved in the talks and walked away from a similar effort in late 2002, has balked at the high-dollar amounts suggested by the plaintiffs. Interior officials have said that Indian landowners are owed very little for the handling of their funds.

"The errors we have found are few and infrequent," associate deputy secretary Jim Cason told a House committee in February. A settlement would be "in the relatively low millions," he said.

David Mullon, a Republican Senate committee staff member, indicated yesterday that settling Cobell was one of the major sticking points. "We have quite a ways to go," he said. Mullon and other committee aides were active participants in all the workgroup meetings.

Another hurdle involves money needed to fix the problems identified by the workgroup. Lawmakers who control the federal government's budget have become increasingly skeptical of the funds going into the Office of Special Trustee, the Interior agency handling trust reform efforts at Interior.

The House Interior Appropriations subcommittee addressed some of its concerns with the passage of the department's 2006 budget bill last month. The lawmakers cut $77.8 million from OST that was to be used for historical accounting project of tribal and individual Indian trust accounts.

"The committee does not agree to the large increase requested in historical accounting and has shifted this funding to help offset the reductions proposed in the administration's request to Indian education and health care," the report accompanying the bill stated.

But the appropriations also had strong words for the "millions of dollars" spent on the lawsuit and trust reform in general. They said they would not fund an historical accounting of the level that is being contemplated by the judge in the case.

"Such an undertaking would certainly be a poor use of federal and trust resources," the report stated. Interior has claimed the broader accounting could cost up to $12 billion.

"This can't happen," said Rep. Charles Taylor (R-North Carolina), the chairman of the Interior subcommittee, back in March. "We don't have those kinds of funds."

After the trust reform legislation is introduced, the committee plans to hold a hearing in July. A mark-up on the bill would take place in September.

McCain introduced a similar bill in 2002, although it didn't go very far. But many of its provisions, such as the creation of a high-level official to oversee trust reform and the adoption of trust standards, have been endorsed by the workgroup.

2006 Interior Appropriations Bill:
H.R.2361 | House Report 109-080

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -
Intertribal Trust Fund Monitoring Association -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -