Conflict confusion over trust fund detailed
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A mandate from Congress and orders from a federal judge haven't been enough to correct more than 100 years of mismanagement of trust assets of 300,000 American Indians, a senior Department of Interior official testified on Tuesday.

There were, and continue to be, numerous conflicts over how to provide such basic duties as an historical accounting to Indian beneficiaries, Tommy Thompson said in federal court. Department officials, senior management and government attorneys can't even agree on what constitutes an accounting, he admitted.

There is even debate over what to tell Congress and U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth about efforts to fix the broken trust, Thompson continued. Although the Clinton administration as far back as September 1999 knew about failures of a $40 million software system designed to bring trust accounting into the 21st century, he acknowledged the court was never told the true status of the project.

"I guess I just don't understand that any more than I understand you having a meeting when you have an agenda item: 'Do we tell Judge Lamberth something?'," said the judge when the issue was brought up.

"If you have a meeting with an agenda item like that, wouldn't it be obvious that you better tell him?" questioned Lamberth.

"Many people who went to the meeting expected that you would be told," responded Thompson. "I certainly did."

"So you're dumbfounded as to why I was never told the truth," Lamberth said.

"I honestly thought you had been provided that information," said Thompson.

Thompson's revelations come on the second day of a contempt trial against top Bush administration officials. Secretary Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb face five charges in their official capacities for the government's handling the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust fund.

Going by the testimony provided, there is little to suggest the pair won't be sanctioned. As the second highest-ranking trust reform official at the Interior, Thompson detailed a level of infighting and confusion at the Interior that has prevented the account holders from ever being told how much money they are owed -- seven years after Congress directed the government to do so and nearly two years since Lamberth ordered the same.

But Thompson also provided evidence that conflicts stretch beyond his department. Attorneys at the Department of Justice, he said, frequently fought over what kind of information to provide to Lamberth, when to tell him and just how much of it.

And because the Office of the Special Trustee, where Thompson is the principal deputy, is a "bad client," matters have not been made any easier, he said. Views of highly qualified trust, banking and management officials were rejected by Justice attorneys as they sought to limit the government's obligations to American Indians, testified Thompson.

"From time to time, we've worked together and from time to time, we've worked at odds with each other," said Thompson of his relationship with Justice. "We've questioned some of the steps that Justice has taken."

With Thompson confirming a number of conclusions made by court monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III, Norton's defense team faces a significant challenge in rebutting his testimony. But even beyond that, the constant bickering is proof the IIM trust has to be taken out of the hands of the Bush administration, said lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell yesterday.

"It's a mumble jumble mess at the Interior," said Cobell. "I'm hoping that the judge saw that."

"Creating a new bureau is not going to do anything," she added, referring to Norton's controversial Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management. "Shifting over to a new bureau under the same leadership of the Department of the Interior is not going to do the job."

Testimony in the trial continues today with Thompson expected to return to the stand in order to review, in minute detail, Kieffer's reports. Mark Nagle, chief of the civil division of the U.S. Attorneys office in Washington, D.C., indicated his team might be able to reduce the number of objections Norton has raised to the documents, but the substance of his proposal wasn't readily apparent yesterday.

Today on Indianz.Com:
Exclusive: Trust reform assessment (12/12)

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

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