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Bill crafted to settle trust accounts

WASHINGTON - Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell has introduced a bill that would enable Indian trust beneficiaries to settle accounts outside their current class action lawsuit against the Interior Department. Sens. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., joined the Colorado Republican in offering Senate bill 1770, the Indian Money Account Claims Satisfaction Act of 2003.

S. 1770 would establish a voluntary alternative claims resolution process to the class action, known as Cobell after lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell. It would authorize a nine-member task force for analysis of historical trust records and data, and disposition of account balances upon the approval of beneficiaries. Task force members with specific expertise - in forensic accounting, federal Indian law, commercial trusts, mineral resources, economic modeling and complex civil litigation - would be appointed by the leadership of both parties in both houses of Congress. A tribunal of arbitrators would settle differences between the task force findings and beneficiary claims. The five arbitrators would be "drawn from the list of arbitrators maintained by the [U.S.] Attorney General."

Beneficiaries who did not accept task force findings could turn to the tribunal for arbitration, or remain members of the class action.

The bill would authorize for appropriation $40 million to support the task force and the tribunal - $10 million for the task force in both fiscal years 2004 and 2005, $10 million for the tribunal in both fiscal years 2006 and 2007.

These appropriations would be separate from funds paid by the government to settle Individual Indian Money accounts. Those funds would not require any further appropriations but would come from the permanent judgment appropriation fund already established by Congress, and already well-known in Indian country as the Judgment Fund.

Cobell accuses the federal government (through its delegate agency, Interior) of mismanaging Individual Indian Money accounts almost since the hour of their establishment in 1887. With the litigation in its eighth year, Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued recent decisions in the case that precipitate a full historical accounting from Interior, but also another five years of litigation at the very least. Congress must foot the bill for both the federal share of the litigation and the full accounting, assuming both proceed.

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Early in this year's initial session of the 108th Congress, Campbell, co-chairman with Inouye of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined him in urging the litigants to settle their differences. On Oct. 21, again joined by Inouye and Domenici, as well as Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, Campbell asked for a sense-of-the-Senate resolution in support of settling the lawsuit.

"Preliminary cost estimates from the Interior Department suggest that it will take $10 billion or more to comply with Judge Lamberth's order on historic accounting," Campbell said, in a statement for the congressional record. "This money will be spent year after year through fiscal year 2008 at least.

"I believe this money is better spent on re-constituting the Indian land base and building a forward-looking, state-of-the-art trust management system, and providing more dollars to Indian health care and education, which we know are underfunded."

The bill introduced on the same day did not mention mediation of the Cobell case. Campbell and Inouye both spoke favorably of mediation in June, after hearing from a "trust fix" expert before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. From later conversations with committee staff, it seems that mediation went out of favor as dispute arose over who the mediator should be, to the detriment of due consideration to the substance of what he or she should do.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has scheduled a hearing on S. 1770 for Oct. 29 in Washington.

The bill can be accessed on the Internet at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Web site, Go to the Upcoming Hearings column at right of the splash page, scroll down to the Oct. 29 schedule, click on the bill number, and scroll down the screen to Text of Legislation. Once on the summary page, scroll to the bottom of the screen and click on Text of Legislation.