Norton slammed by trust fund monitor
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Despite pledges made to tribal leaders, American Indians and Congress that trust reform was one of her top priorities, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton approved a controversial and costly statistical sampling plan without conducting any research into the project, according to a court report released on Wednesday.

Instead of addressing potential pitfalls and confronting confusion in the ranks about what it would entail, she signed off on the project as one of her first official acts only to show that the Bush administration was pro-active on trust reform.

In doing so, she relied on a top aide to draft a memorandum in favor of the sampling plan over the loud objections of the Indian account holders to whom she has a legal responsibility and amid threats from lawmakers who wanted strong assurances the project would work.

The aide, a new member of the Bush team, based the memo on what she believed was a similar experience working with bank accounts. But even though Deputy Chief of Staff Sue Ellen Woodridge took full responsibility for the poor decision-making process, her apologies were not enough to excuse Norton's ignorance, said Court Monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, appointed by US District Judge Royce Lamberth to watch over the Interior.

"While pledging that trust reform was one of the highest priorities for the DOI, the [Bush] administration did little or no research on the past administration’s decision to do a statistical sampling," wrote Kieffer.

"While one can argue that the Secretary and her staff were very busy in the early days of the new administration, too busy to consider the basis of every decision made by their subordinates, she specifically testified to the importance and high priority she placed on trust reform," he continued.

Yesterday's revelations -- contained in a 48-page report the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit are calling "dynamite" -- come as the Bush administration attempts to make inroads on fixing the broken trust system, which dates back more than one hundred years. Just a day earlier, Norton announced two major initiatives aimed at ensuring the government is "on track" to meeting its duties to an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country.

Those new assurances are now cast in doubt as Kieffer paints a picture of incompetence at the Interior. "The present administration’s decisions have caused further delay in the historical accounting process," he wrote.

But Kieffer also lays significant blame on the Clinton administration, including former Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover. Along with other top Interior officials, a number of whom are still in office, they hatched the sampling plan last year only to delay a historical accounting while they appealed a 1999 court decision which ordered them to do so, he said.

The government subsequently lost the appeal in February. Yet just a week later, Norton told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee she was committed to meaningful resolution of the trust debacle even though Kieffer found no evidence she was ever provided a copy of the appeals court ruling.

Kieffer's report, issued late yesterday afternoon, is the first he has completed since being named court monitor in April, an appointment welcomed by the Cobell plaintiffs and Norton. An Interior spokesperson said the government is "still reviewing the actual report" and has 10 days to file a response if desired.

"We're focused on the future," said Stephanie Hanna. "The Secretary took direct, affirmative steps yesterday on the two biggest challenges for the department with regards to our Indian trust responsibilities."

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

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