Norton renews push on private trust data
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's legal team made an urgent plea to a federal judge on Thursday, asking for permission to circumvent a court order and provide confidential trust data to Congress and the American public.

Renewing a request first made last fall, a government attorney told U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth that a decision needed to be made soon on the matter. Norton is scheduled to testify before Congress next week and has been asked to talk about a report containing private data on Indian account holders, said John T. Stemplewicz of the Department of Justice.

Stemplewicz acknowledged that the report, prepared by auditing firm Ernst & Young, contains account balances and other data not otherwise available to the public. "It does include personal information that would be protected by the Privacy Act," he said.

Additionally, he noted that the report is under seal due to a court order drafted in 1996. The decree, entered into against the wishes of attorneys representing 300,000 Indian beneficiaries, prevents private information from being disclosed.

But because two legislative panels are seeking the report, Stemplewicz argued that the safeguards should be lifted. "The protective order does not apply to information provided to Congress," he said.

Stemplewicz's plea comes as the Department of Interior remains crippled in order to keep prying eyes away from the type of information contained in the Ernst & Young report. The report contains a reconciliation of the assets of four of the five named plaintiffs, including banker Elouise Cobell, in the Individual Indian Money (IIM) class action.

As such, its contents are of high interest to the legislative panels with jurisdiction over the Interior. The House Resources Committee and the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee have each made requests to see the report.

In a letter to Norton, Resources committee chairman Jim Hansen (R-Utah) said he wants to know more about the effort when she appears before him on February 6. "We are also interested in receiving this report and expect you to discuss the results of the report at this hearing," Hansen wrote.

But attorneys representing the Indian beneficiaries have criticized Norton for seeking to ignore a court order. They are seeking to delay a ruling on the issue until they have more time to investigate the report.

Additionally, top trust officials at the department have informed Norton and her staff, as well as government attorneys, of their opposition. "We can't think of a situation where the trustee would release detailed financial information without the beneficiaries' approval," said a senior official.

"I hope they think better of this utterly ridiculous position," the official added.

Should the report be released to a legislative panel, it would be available to the public, according to Congressional aides familiar with the situation. The aides said all testimony, including documents submitted, become part of the record for anyone to view.

In addition to Cobell, the report contains what are called "virtual ledgers" of Mildred Cleghorn, former chairwoman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma; Louis LaRose, member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska; and Earl Old Person, longtime chairman of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. Cobell is a Blackfeet tribal member.

According to the government, no account information was found for plaintiff Thomas Maulson between 1915 and 1999. Maulson is a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe of Wisconsin.

Ernst & Young was paid $1 million to reconcile records collected by the Interior. The Interior itself spend $20 million to collect the documents provided to the firm.

Relevant Links:
Ernst & Young -
House Resources Committee -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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