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House Gives Indians a Win in Funds Challenge

Congress: Lawmakers defeat a move to derail a full accounting of royalties owed by the government.

July 18, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Native Am- ericans who claim the government squandered billions in revenue from their land won a victory Wednesday when the House killed a provision that would have prevented a full accounting of the money.

Congress had ordered the accounting in 1994 to determine the scope of government mismanagement of royalties from Indian lands. A federal judge ruled in 1999 that the accounting must go back to 1887, when the Indians were given plots of land, with the Interior Department responsible for management of the land.

The language in the Interior Appropriations Bill would have essentially overridden the judge's ruling, prohibiting an accounting before 1985.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) called the Interior Department "the Enron of federal agencies" for its management of the Indian money and said removing the accounting prohibition was a matter of fairness.

"This provision is nothing more and nothing less than a gag order on thousands of American Indians who are seeking a proper accounting from the federal government of royalties owed to them," said Rahall.

The House voted 281 to 145 to eliminate the provision.

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) said Congress needs to get the Indian trust fund dispute resolved. Limiting the accounting to 1985 would have actually allowed it to be accomplished, he said; otherwise, the additional cost of doing the accounting could divert funds from other Indian programs.

Indians who have sued the government claim the Interior Department's mismanagement has cost them more than $10 billion. The department insists the figure is much lower.

The Interior Department estimates it would cost $2.4 billion and take at least 10 years to perform the full accounting, a task that would entail combing through 25 million electronic transactions and 500 million paper records.

To perform the accounting back to 1985 would cost $907 million, the department said.

In February, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton told Congress that many records have been destroyed, damaged or lost and a full accounting may not be possible.

Wednesday's House action may force the department to face that fact, said Keith Harper, an attorney for the Indian plaintiffs.

"Now they have no sanctuary--not the Congress not the courts," he said. "Ultimately, I think what this is going to lead to is the admission finally by the administration that they cannot do a full or fair accounting and there has to be some other resolution by the court."

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, impatient with the delays in conducting the accounting he ordered in 1999, is considering whether to hold Norton in contempt of court.

In addition to the accounting provision, the House stripped out language that would have allowed the Interior Department to pay for private attorneys for officials in contempt proceedings and would have required the Interior Department to release a partial accounting, which Lamberth has sealed.

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