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11 Million Acres of Shame

September 22, 2002

More than 300,000 Native Americans should be receiving about $500 million a year from the Department of the Interior in royalties collected on oil, gas, coal, timber and grazing operations on 11 million acres of Western lands held in trust for the Indians since 1887. Now here's a surprise: They are getting only a fraction of that. A lot isn't getting collected in the first place. Some is being held in a trust fund. And much of it has flowed into the U.S. Treasury to be spent on other things.

Interior's management of the trust created to handle this money is so bad that a federal judge last week held Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton in contempt of court in the most scathing of terms. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, a former federal lawyer, branded Norton an unfit administrator and said, "I have never seen more egregious misconduct by the federal government." He ordered Norton to come up with an adequate reform plan by January and appointed a "master monitor" to oversee the operation.

Lamberth found Norton and an aide guilty of five counts of civil contempt, including the filing of false reports on attempts to reform the trust and lying about computer security of trust fund data. The Interior Department was forced to shut down its Web site in late 2001 when it discovered that hackers could easily access and manipulate trust fund data.

Mismanagement of the trust fund is not new. Bill Clinton's Interior and Treasury secretaries also were held in contempt for trust fund actions. The handling of the trust has been a scandal from the beginning.

In 1887, Congress allotted the land to individual Indians in compensation for the loss of tribal reservations taken for the use of settlers. The government held the land in trust and would lease it to miners, loggers and oil and gas companies. The Indians were supposed to get the royalties the federal government collected on the resource production. Lawyers for the Indians living throughout the West, including California, estimate they are owed at least $10 billion in royalties that were lost, stolen or not properly accounted for.

In the late 1980s, a Senate committee tried to investigate allegations that oil and gas companies were conspiring to cheat the trust fund. The probe ended inconclusively when investigators said they did not have the resources they needed to do the job.

The Interior Department now is trying to determine which heirs of the original American Indian beneficiaries have trust funds coming and how much they are owed, a job that is expected to take 10 years and cost about $2.4 billion.

In the meantime, Interior officials are considering an appeal of Lamberth's contempt ruling even though the judge imposed no penalty. They would be far better off using that money and energy to fix the trust fund mess.

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