Task force mired in trust reform debate
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MONDAY, JULY 29, 2002

After six months of intense discussions, tribal leaders and Department of Interior officials have yet to agree on reforms considered key to fixing the broken Indian trust.

Although both sides point out that talks are ongoing, the failure to finalize an agreement risks further delays to an already drawn-out process. A joint tribal-federal task force was warned a month ago that time was running out to implement changes this year.

"I think both parties are working in good faith," said Dan DuBray, communications director to Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, one of the co-chairs of the task force. "There are a lot of interests here."

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow to get an update on ways to bring accountability in the management of $3.1 billion in tribal and individual Indian trust funds. Legislation is required to enact two major proposals tribes have supported.

One involves the creation of a high-level bureaucrat, or undersecretary, to oversee Indian affairs within the entire department. The Bureau of Indian Affairs would also undergo some changes.

But as of last week's task force meeting in Portland, Oregon, it was only the tribal delegates which settled on this particular option. Department representatives did not endorse the idea but agreed to work with the tribes to finalize a structure.

Tribes were also unanimous on the creation of an independent commission to oversee Indian trust. "Anything less is just not acceptable at this time," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall, another task force co-chair.

An independent entity would impose fines and sanctions on the department when it falls out of compliance with trust standards. Tribes cite decades of mismanagement that has gone uncorrected.

Although Interior officials insist they have continually supported outside oversight, they initially rejected the idea during meetings in early June. The department last week finally agreed to a presidentially-appointed commission with the ability to refer disputes to an enforcement body.

But the department's proposal to look to the the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which oversees the private banking industry, for guidance on the issue is just a concept, acknowledged DuBray. Neither the OCC nor the Treasury Department has been consulted, he said.

The OCC or an OCC-like entity would have to be granted jurisdiction over Indian trust through legislation, an unprecedented and major undertaking. Also, the body's harsh enforcement mechanisms were almost outright rejected by DuBray, who said the department wouldn't agree to "the levels or amount of fines" that reach as high as $1 million a day for the private sector.

Hall said the tribes were finalizing what to say to the committee tomorrow. He believed the independent commission could be a deal-breaker if not resolved.

In addition to hearing from the task force, the committee will also discuss legislation proposed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) to reorganize Indian trust duties within the Interior.

Get the Bill:
S.2212, the Indian Trust Asset and Trust Fund Management and Reform Act of 2002.

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

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