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Norton Takes Trust Fund From Indian Bureau

November 16, 2001|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton stripped the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its oversight of billions of dollars of royalties from Native American land Thursday. A new division was created to fix more than a century of trust mismanagement.

The change should help different elements of the effort to reform the trust work together, Norton said.

"The main question that people have been struggling with is, 'Who is in charge of trust reform?' " she said.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth last month asked that question of department lawyers when he threatened to hold Norton and others in contempt for failing to comply with his order to correct the trust fund management.

Elouise Cobell, the Browning, Mont., banker and member of the Blackfeet Nation who sued the Interior Department in 1996 for mismanaging the funds, said Norton's action was a "last-minute, backs-to-the-wall effort to stave off" court action.

"The trust is a shambles and in need of top-to-bottom reconstruction," she said.

Norton said the Interior Department began reviewing the trust fund management in April and is basing the changes on a report completed this week by Electronic Data Services Inc.

Ron Allen, vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, expressed concern that Native American tribes were not consulted before Norton announced the changes and that the new Bureau of Trust Assets Management will not be as responsive to tribes as the BIA was.

The new bureau will report to Norton.

Norton said tribes will have a say in shaping the new system, and that her action will let the bureau focus on Native American education, law enforcement, social services and economic development.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have asked Lamberth to strip the department of the trust fund management altogether and assign an outside party to manage the money.

In 1994, Congress ordered the department to clean up more than a century of mismanagement of mining, grazing, oil drilling and logging royalties from Indian land.

Nearly two years ago, Lamberth ordered the department to determine how much it owes Native Americans--the plaintiffs say it is at least $10 billion--and to improve its system of accounting.

Neither has happened, despite $614 million spent by the department, according to reports by a court-appointed watchdog.

The plaintiffs' attorneys want nearly 50 government officials, including Norton, held in contempt and possibly jailed on grounds they have obstructed the reform and misled the court.

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