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Interior Gets New Deadline to Pay Indians

September 26, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Thursday said he would give the Interior Department another chance to account for money owed to American Indians, setting a 2007 deadline but expressing little confidence the department would act.

"It is not that the court believes Interior is incapable of formulating an adequate plan for an accounting; rather, it is that the court has no confidence that Interior is willing to actually implement an adequate accounting," wrote U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in his ruling.

Lamberth set strict deadlines to complete phases of the accounting, with a final tally to be reached by Sept. 30, 2007. Ultimately, the accounting would be used in a future trial to determine how much the government owes more than 300,000 American Indian landowners for mismanaging their money.

The deadlines could pose a problem for Interior, which has said it would take a year longer -- five years at a cost of $335 million -- to account for the money.

A more comprehensive accounting plan prepared by the department last year would take 10 years to complete and cost as much as $2.7 billion, which Congress has said it is unwilling to pay.

"They can't do it. It's absolutely impossible," said Dennis Gingold, attorney for the American Indian plaintiffs. "He has created the worst nightmare for the Department of Interior."

The order could force Interior to settle the lawsuit or risk Lamberth's penalties if it fails to meet the deadlines, Gingold said.

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