Norton seeking to expose trust fund data
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In a move which could expose the personal financial information of as many as 300,000 American Indians throughout the country, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is proposing to make public previously confidential trust fund data.

A motion Norton's attorneys filed in federal court this month seeks to change a policy her department sought nearly five years ago. Citing privacy concerns, the Interior -- over the objections of Indian beneficiaries led by banker Elouise Cobell -- pushed U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to impose special protections on trust fund documents.

Facing pressure from members of Congress already skeptical of having spent $614 million on a reform project widely seen as a complete failure, Norton now wants to alter those November 1996 safeguards. Although only seeking to disclose one report at this time, Norton's action could open up the accounts of all trust fund holders to the public eye.

But even if Norton's request is not approved, her lawyers say they will make the report, which details personal financial data about Cobell and the other lead plaintiffs, available anyway. Congress has requested the report and it will be given to the appropriate legislative committees on or about October 8, said one lawyer.

To the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, Norton's action is abhorrible. As trustee for American Indians, Norton is "supposed to preserve and protect the information of trust assets," said Dennis Gingold, a Washington, DC, lawyers.

By seeking to disclose the report, Norton is "desperately trying to get more money from Congress by lying to them," Gingold added.

To the Interior, the request is merely an attempt to better inform Congress. Even if the information ends up in the wrong hands, disclosing it would be in "full compliance" with federal privacy laws, asserted spokesperson Stephanie Hanna.

"We feel that it is relevant and of interest to the Congress to give the documents to the appropriators and other oversight committees involved," said Hanna.

The report in question was authored by accounting firm Ernst & Young and finalized last month, according to the Interior. Estimated to have cost $1 million, the report contains historical transaction data on four of the five named plaintiffs in the Cobell suit. The fifth, said a top Interior official, does not have a trust account.

The report would be crucial to funding the Bush administration's quest to provide Indian beneficiaries with an accurate accounting of their funds, something which Norton acknowledges is "long overdue." A 1994 law mandated the government to provide the accounting but lack of adequate records, stalling tactics and internal management and control battles have prevented it, according to court reports and interviews with Interior officials.

In response to motion to disclose the document, the Cobell plaintiffs are seeking "severe sanctions" against Norton for her "intentional violation of court orders."

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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