Bill offers 'extinguishment' of trust fund claims
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The Bush administration has proposed legislation to upend the Indian trust fund lawsuit by limiting the rights of individual account holders.

Despite never having started an historical accounting of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust, the bill authorizes Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to offer a settlement to willing beneficiaries. Under the "voluntary incentive program," account holders will receive a cash payout in return for "extinguishment" of their rights.

But unlike the ongoing class action representing 500,000 American Indians, IIM account holders will not be allowed to make their own claim for money they are owed, according to the language of the bill. They also cannot seek court review if they accept a settlement.

"The terms and conditions of the settlement proposals, including the methods or regulatory formulas by which they may be calculated or arrived at, shall be in the sole discretion of the Secretary and shall not be subject to judicial review," the draft states.

The bill, which has been circulating in Indian Country for the past couple of days, is a direct challenge to the successful IIM lawsuit. Rather than accept a court-ordered judgment that could be in the billions, the proposal would put the ball back into the hands of an agency that is still in breach of trust to Indian beneficiaries.

"Legislation that gives no requirements to provide accurate information to the beneficiaries is one that simply undermines their rights," said Keith Harper, an attorney from the Native American Rights Fund who represents the Indian plaintiffs.

According to the draft, the program will only apply to accounts derived from oil, gas, timber and other land-based activities. Judgment fund and per capita beneficiaries aren't eligible for participation.

Language in the bill admits the dismal lack of records necessary to conduct an accurate accounting. But it also cites the amount of time and resources it would take for the government to fulfill its trust responsibilities to Indian beneficiaries.

A plan Norton released in July said it will take at least 10 years and $2.4 billion to complete an accounting.

Resolution of the Cobell suit, however, could come quicker. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth has scheduled a May 2003 trial to address the accounting. He also ordered Norton to submit a plan to manage the IIM accounts by January 6, 2003.

The plaintiffs claim at least $10 billion has gone unaccounted. The government admits at least $13 billion has passed through the system since 1909. The IIM trust was created in 1887.

Under the incentive program, the Department of Interior has full power to define how it will offer a settlement. Any beneficiary who accepts payment will be required to sign a waiver of rights that also extends to his or her heirs.

The legislation is the second to come out of the Bush administration regarding the IIM trust. Another bill allows Norton to consolidate "unclaimed" Indian property. Tribal leaders have already rejected this proposal twice.

Relevant Documents:
Draft: IIM Extinguishment Program (PDF 28k)

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

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