Norton's trust fund office to be investigated
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FEBRUARY 13, 2001

In a move indicating the Department of Interior under Secretary Gale Norton will be scrutinized just as much as the administration of her predecessor, a formal investigation of the office responsible for protecting the records of nearly 500,000 American Indian trust fund account holders was announced on Monday.

Beginning March 5, Alan Balaran, the court-appointed special master assigned to help resolve the ongoing trust fund lawsuit, will conduct a full-scale investigation of the Office of Trust Records (OTR). His goal is to ensure the office is "properly performing" its duties of record management and preservation.

Balaran isn't stopping there, however. He is also requesting the government identify any employee who may have knowledge of a reported incident of document destruction at the Northern Cheyenne Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Last month, the plaintiffs in the case, led by Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker Elouise Cobell, became concerned about the 160 boxes which were reported destroyed. Although the government says it is investigating the incident, such destruction has been a key sticking point in the lawsuit and is a problem which most likely stretches back decades.

During the first phase of the lawsuit, the issue became so important that the judge assigned to the case ordered that all documents related to Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders be preserved. Employees of the Department of Treasury had destroyed 162 boxes of documents, an action lawyers for the government attempted to cover up.

Cobell and the plaintiffs now say not much has changed. The formal investigation of indicates they aren't far off in their criticism of the government.

At the same time, they have shown mixed feelings about the new administration. In two separate filings last week, Dennis Gingold, one of the group's lawyers, both praised and criticized Norton.

"Plaintiffs are saddened that the new Secretary apparently has decided to conduct business as usual," argued Gingold in a February 5 filing addressing the government's attempt to keep certain documents secret Two days later, Gingold wrote: "First, plaintiffs commend Gale Norton, the new Secretary of the Interior, for not opposing" a motion he filed regarding protection of documents.

Balaran has also run into problems of his own. In a letter to the Department of Justice dated January 31, Balaran accused certain government lawyers of beginning "a misguided campaign to undermine my authority."

"As I have been called worse things by better lawyers, I will not take these insults to heart," wrote Balaran. A follow-up letter from Phillip Brooks denied Balaran's accusations.

In her confirmation testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Norton promised she would do whatever she could to resolve the trust fund dispute. "I will work with this committee to try to find the best way to resolve that so that we can see that it's all straightened out at some point in the future," said Norton.

Relevant Links:
The Office of Trust Records -
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Babbitt -

Only on Indianz.Com:
The Trust Fund Fiasco (Smoke Signals 1999)

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