Limits on Indian trust duties criticized
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FRIDAY, JULY 12, 2002

A senior government official, who swore in court declarations that he is in charge of Indian trust, and lawmakers worried about the cost of a lawsuit that has exposed government corruption came under fire on Thursday for attempts to restrict the Department of Interior's obligations to Indian Country.

Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles was criticized by a court investigator for his ignorance of trust law standards. In Senate testimony last month, he said the Bush administration was instead looking to the Supreme Court to define the department's "evolving" responsibilities.

"As a non-lawyer I tell you that we are looking to those decisions to give us some further guidance," he said on June 18.

But court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, an investigator for the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit, said Griles' statement was indicative of the department's historical "recalcitrance" to more than 500,000 Indian beneficiaries whose funds have been mismanaged for more than a century. A Bush administration plan outlining a $2.4 billion, 10-year effort to account for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust only perpetuates the government's breach of trust, he added.

"The report, and Deputy Secretary Griles’ June 18, 2002 testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, exhibit a remarkable lack of knowledge about and understanding of the legal and fiduciary trust standards under which a trustee must conduct accountings for beneficiaries in general," wrote Kieffer in a 36-page report, "and for the IIM account holders, plaintiffs in the Cobell litigation, specifically."

The report, Kieffer's eighth since being appointed to watch over trust reform in April 2001, adds to growing criticism the Interior has seen in recent months. Individual and tribal account holders are frustrated with the department's reluctance to meet demands to be held to the highest fiduciary standards.

Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the IIM lawsuit, said yesterday that the department's stance flies in the face of President Bush's push for fiscal responsibility. "It is very strange that the President acts aggressively to prosecute chief executive officers of public companies for their corrupt activities at the same time the President attempts to protect government officials who engage in precisely the same misconduct," the Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker said.

Cobell also released copies of pending legislation that limits the department's responsibilities to account holders. The GOP-led House Appropriations Committee, citing prohibitive costs, said it would only provide $15 million for an accounting of the IIM trust during the years 1985 to 2000.

The department's Office of Historical Trust Accounting (OHTA), in a July 3 report, estimated it would cost $907 million just for that period alone. But the committee said "these funds [if allocated] would have a devastating effect on Indian Country by siphoning scarce resources away from critical Indian programs."

The position drew complaints from Kieffer, who said in his report that Congress and the Interior were warned years ago that funding concerns were not an excuse for inaction. Democrats in the Senate, however, have not agreed to the restrictions of their House colleagues.

Any differences would have to be worked out by a joint House-Senate conference committee.

Relevant Documents:
8th Court Monitor Report (7/11) | House Committee Report (7/9) | Senate Committee Report (6/27)

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

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Court monitor releases new report (7/11)
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