No trust fund settlement just yet
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MARCH 22, 2001

At an oversight hearing before the House Committee on Appropriations, the Department of Interior's top trust fund official on Wednesday said he still hoped the government could settle its billion dollar lawsuit with American Indian account holders even after previous talks failed.

"I firmly believe there should be initiatives on both sides to resume negotiations," said Special Trustee Tom Slonaker. "I believe Secretary [Gale Norton] feels the same way."

But the plaintiffs in the five-year-old lawsuit, led by Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker Elouise Cobell, probably aren't going to make the first move. A lawyer for the group, Dennis Gingold, yesterday said settlement talks would only take place under one condition.

"There is no way this case can be settled unless the Secretary of Treasury, Secretary of Interior, and the Attorney General do their job," said Gingold after the hearing. "Unless there are assurances that Cabinet officials will implement what they agreed to, we're not going to spend five minutes talking to them any more."

Given admissions by senior Bureau of Indian Affairs officials that trust reform isn't working, regular reports that point out missed deadlines, and court investigations that reveal security breaches, the condition might not be met any time soon.

And according to the government's projections, the key trust reform system that will provide automated access to the accounts of an estimated 300,00 American Indians throughout the country won't be fully operational with accurate data until 2005, nearly ten years after the lawsuit was initiated.

Since the case's inception, it has seen the passing of one of the original plaintiffs, the departure of three officials who were slapped with contempt of court charges, and the resignation of the first Special Trustee. Yet as Slonaker agreed yesterday, the case has "probably sparked reform."

But echoing an issue he has raised since taking the job last June, Slonaker said there is a "dark side" to the affair. Motions and cross-motions are filed just about every day by both sides and along with the continued investigation of the court's Special Master, the lawsuit has distracted from the "time and energies" of the people implementing trust reform, he said.

For once, perhaps, Gingold wasn't moved.

"Its very convenient for the Special Trustee to make bald statements," he said. "He doesn't like the scrutiny because he's not doing his job."

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on a number of potentially important events. The plaintiffs have requested an emergency status meeting to discuss apparent failures in reform and Judge Royce Lamberth still has to decide if he will hold a contempt trial to address retaliation against a BIA employee who criticized the reform project.

If that happens and Lamberth finds the allegations true, Norton may soon follow in the footsteps of her predecessor and end up in contempt of court. Or worse, she may end up in jail.

"If government officials do not obey [Lamberth's] orders, he will put them in jail or he will fine them personally," asserted Gingold.

Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project, BIA -
Office of Special Trustee -
The House Committe on Appropriations -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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