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Facing Contempt, Norton Pledges to Reform Tribal Fund

November 24, 2001|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As she undertakes to clean up the long-troubled Indian trust fund system, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton is promising the broadest consultation possible with representatives of Native Americans and other interested parties.

Native Americans have repeatedly complained of being kept in the dark about the government's mismanagement of the multibillion-dollar trust fund, which is supposed to benefit about 300,000 tribal members. The fund was set up more than 100 years ago to hold and distribute fees from oil, grazing, drilling and logging leases on tribal members' lands--and it has been plagued by problems from its inception.

"We must tap into the broad knowledge and experience available from these groups in order to fashion the best organizational structure possible," Norton said in new court papers filed in a five-year-old lawsuit brought by Native Americans.

Neither side in the case can say for sure how much is in the trust fund, which is supposed to receive about $500 million each year. The government has acknowledged that its records are in such disarray that it cannot track how much money is in the account. Native Americans are claiming that they are owed $10 billion; the government puts the figure in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Under pressure from U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who has been hearing the case, Norton announced earlier this month that she was creating an office to focus solely on straightening out the trust fund's problems, headed by former Interior Department official Ross Swimmer.

Keith Harper, a lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund, expressed skepticism Friday at Norton's pledge of consultation.

"It's very clear that up to now she hasn't consulted with the tribes, and the reorganization is a done deal," he said. "The people at Interior seem to be talking out of two sides of their mouth. The secretary makes political decisions, which are not necessarily in the best interests of the tribes."

Lamberth has said that he will conduct a hearing Friday to assess progress on trust fund reform.

Swimmer, a former chief of the Cherokee Nation, headed Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Reagan administration. It will be his job to shape the new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management.

But because Swimmer will report to Norton, Harper said, "we're not going to get true reform until someone entirely independent of Interior is calling the shots."

Internal memos directed to Norton, recently made part of the federal court file, are brimming with optimism about the new trust office. In one, department officials call the new setup "a dramatic change in organization and management structure for Indian trust reform and trust operations."

In another memorandum, Norton advises her staff to "ensure that we consult with Congress, the tribes, Department of Interior personnel and their unions as well as other interested parties prior to implementing a broad reorganization of Indian trust asset management functions."

Strong remedies are long overdue. The government's botched accounting system was established more than a century ago to compensate Native Americans for use of their lands.

But officials at the Interior and Treasury departments told the court two years ago that, while they had deposited an estimated $350 million to $500 million a year for decades into the trust fund, they cannot account for that money. Many documents were mishandled, destroyed by floods or simply lost over the years--and no one was held accountable, they said.

In a December 1999 ruling that detailed a history of incompetence and neglect, Lamberth ordered the Interior Department to repair the system. Although Norton did not take office until last January, the judge has said that he will hold her responsible for any continuing problems.

Tribal lawyers have told Lamberth that at least $10 billion is owed to about 300,000 Native Americans or their heirs. Even though the lawsuit was filed during the Clinton administration, Lamberth said recently that he was prepared to hold Norton, a Bush administration appointee, and 38 other officials in contempt of court for failing to correct the problem.

Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles said in a court document that he shares Norton's concern and that "we will advise the court as further actions are taken."

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