Trust fund fiasco makes government's worst list
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JUNE 7, 2001

The Democrats took control of the Senate on Wednesday and it looks like Joe Lieberman of Connecticut will have a lot on his plate as the new Chairman of the Government Affairs Committee.

Known for his strong stances on government reform, the former Vice Presidential candidate will be taking on familiar territory as the leader of the panel which attacks efficiency in Washington, DC. But a new report suggests he should address what has become a black eye for the federal government, regardless of who's in power.

Outgoing Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday released a report identifying the biggest challenges facing the Bush administration. Coming in at number two on a list of "The Federal Government's Top 10 Worst Examples of Mismanagement" is the trust fund debacle.

"The Department of the Interior does not know what happened to more than $3 billion it holds in trust for American Indians," observes the report. "A judge overseeing this case called it 'fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form.'"

To Elouise Cobell, the inclusion comes as no surprise. The Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit which has forced the government to try and provide an accurate historical accounting of the funds owed to an estimated 300,000 Americans Indian throughout the country.

But she isn't yet convinced the Democrats taking control of the Senate will ensure success. "They'll be putting pressure on the Republican administration to do their job," Cobell opined. "Maybe we'll have a positive out of that."

"But its too early to tell," she added, still cautious after five years of seeing the federal government -- regardless of party politics -- express varying degrees of opposition to fixing the system.

To be sure, the Bush administration does have some positives in its favor, say Cobell and the other plaintiffs. Acting under a recommendation from the Interior, the government has chosen not to appeal a February ruling which favored the account holders to the Supreme Court.

And the Interior has welcomed the addition of a court monitor who is overseeing efforts to fix the historically mismanaged system. The report specifically blames the department for "untrained and inexperienced" staff for account problems, an issue Joseph S. Keiffer III is getting paid $250 an hour to investigate.

For now, though, Cobell and the plaintiffs await the second phase of their landmark case, which will focus on settling the accounts. The plaintiffs estimate account holders are due $10 billion for more than one hundred years of mismanagement, while the government estimates it at far less, possibly as much as $1 billion.

In either case, Cobell is of one mind on resolving the matter. "Anybody in their right mind knows this has to be settled," she said. "I don't have a lot of faith until I really know exactly if they are truly going to settle this."

Lieberman could not be reached for comment yesterday about the report and the trust fund case.

Get the Report;
Government at the Brink: Urgent Federal Government Management Problems Facing the Bush Administration (Govt Affairs Comm 6/5)

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

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