Bush administration won't challenge trust fund ruling
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MAY 31, 2001

In a move welcomed by the plaintiffs in the billion dollar trust fund lawsuit, the Bush administration has let pass a deadline to seek Supreme Court review of a landmark court ruling won on behalf of an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country.

"Maybe the message is getting through," said lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell on Wednesday. "They know that people are not being paid the right amount of money. The focus has to be on a fix."

But defendant Department of Interior discounted the idea that losing the case was a wake up call to the government or Secretary of Interior Gale Norton. The former Colorado Attorney General was in office less than a month when the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in February ruled her department responsible for a historical accounting of the money owed to American Indians.

"The message got through to the Interior to fix the system quite a long time ago," said spokesperson Stephanie Hanna. "The Interior did not recommend to the Department of Justice that we continue to appeal mostly because the . . . rulings were something we felt we could live with."

Five years ago, the Cobell plaintiffs initiated their lawsuit on behalf of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders whose assets the government promised to maintain more than one hundred years ago. They were soon met with resistance and delays by the Interior and the Department of Treasury, the other defendant.

By the time Judge Royce Lamberth handed down his ruling in December 1999, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover had been slapped with contempt of court charges for disobeying court orders. Special Trustee Paul Homan, whom Congress directed to fix the system, left in a huff with Babbitt over support and one of the original five plaintiffs died.

Yet the group emerged victorious when Lamberth found the government breached its trust responsibility to the account holders. But after claiming victory, the government appealed, a move backed by the Interior at the time, said Hanna.

One year later, the plaintiffs were vindicated when Lamberth's ruling was affirmed. The appeals court even criticized the government for making "little progress" in fixing the system and only in response to the lawsuit.

Despite the victories, there has been little comfort to Cobell and the plaintiffs that the Bush administration will provide a fix. They have asked Lamberth to consider holding Norton and numerous other officials in contempt several times.

There have also been repeated reports of document destruction, a problem which got the Clinton administration into hot water. Allegations of retaliation against Interior employees continue unresolved as a BIA computer analyst in New Mexico remains on home duty while still drawing her $80,000 yearly salary.

The government has a second trial on the horizon, one which will focus on how much the account holders are owed. The plaintiffs contend they are due $10 billion while the government says the amount is considerably less.

To help determine the money owed, Norton has authorized a statistical sampling study of the accounts. The Interior says it could cost up to $70 million to study just 350 accounts. Whatever the amount, Hanna said the department will ask Congress for the funds.

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Relevant Links:
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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