Norton's overhaul of BIA blasted
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton should be not allowed to move forward with a proposal to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its trust responsibilities, the plaintiffs in the billion dollar class action suit have told a federal judge.

Norton's proposal was hatched "with no prior consultation with tribes, individuals, or other interested parties," the plaintiffs said in a court filing last week. Filled with "doubletalk and promises," the plan is yet another attempt to delay justice to an estimated 300,000 Indian beneficiaries who still haven't been provided an accurate accounting of their funds, they wrote.

"This reorganization," said the plaintiffs, "is in fact nothing more than a bad-faith effort to divide and conquer by frightening the tribes and others with the specter of 'gutting the BIA.'"

And unless someone steps in to stop the runaway train, the "poorest people in this country" will continue to be harmed, the plaintiffs alleged. Appointing a receiver, or outside caretaker, for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust is the only way to go, they added.

"It is time, we respectfully submit, to ring down the curtain on this charade," concluded the plaintiffs, led by Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker Elouise Cobell.

Combined with another filing calling on civil and criminal contempt trials for Norton and 38 other government officials, attorneys and senior management, the dark-humored missive is Cobell's response to a lengthy document the Department of Justice sent to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth last week. The department has asked Lamberth to give the government another chance to fix the broken system, citing the creation of the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management as a key step in the right direction.

But judging from the outcry from Indian Country, the plan has a lot of obstacles to overcome. Since the new agency would not just handle the IIM trust but tribal trust assets as well, it has drawn criticism from tribal leaders and organizations who said it was crafted without their input -- a claim echoed by the individual account holders.

Norton has "declared war on the BIA," said Dennis Gingold, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the class action. "There's no doubt the BIA is the problem, but there's also no doubt it is also her."

According to Norton, however, she shouldn't be punished for her handling of the trust. Despite two special master opinions and four court monitor reports that have blasted her administration, she claims she's done nothing specific to warrant being fined or sent to jail.

Whether Lamberth will buy that defense remains to be seen. On Friday, he has scheduled a hearing to address the contempt and receiver issues.

Even before that, though, he will consider whether Norton has such a loose hold of the computer system at the Interior that he must take it away from her and assign a more competent person to fix it. Special master Alan Balaran has been investigating the security of the trust accounts for several months, documenting his findings in private.

Lamberth on Wednesday might unseal Balaran's reports, as he has indicated twice already. Doing so could be incredibly damaging to Norton, whose own consulting firm has uncovered problems she now wants to keep out of the public eye by filing them under court seal.

That is all the more reason to appoint someone else to take care of the IIM trust, said Gingold. He wants Lamberth to give temporary control of the computer network to Balaran and unseal the reports in question.

"It's important for the world to know that this is much worse than ever imagined," he said.

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Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton faces big week on trust (11/26)
Editorial: Give Norton plan a chance (11/26)
Norton's attorney decries unfairness (11/26)
Norton's choice raises questions (11/26)

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

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