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Cobell: Accounting fiasco result of government myth-weaving

Something dramatic and important has happened in the class action lawsuit I filed 11 years ago over the government's admitted mismanagement of the Indian Trust.

It should trouble everyone in Indian country because it signals a 180-degree turn in the way the Interior Department plans its long-promised accounting.

Gone are the government's initial, frank admissions of bungling the trust. In their place are new and troubling claims that the trust was actually well-managed. What losses the government says it can find are relatively small, perhaps several million dollars, since the trust was imposed in 1887.

Only the most unsuspecting rube could listen to such an about-face without skepticism. Thankfully, in Washington and in Indian country, there are not many left. And, for the few that remain, they need only examine the government's bountiful record of lies, misrepresentations, fraud, thievery and outright villainy in all matters involving Indian people.

The evidence our lawyers presented to U.S. District Judge James Robertson in October shows that the problems continue. Indians have been robbed of billions - not millions - of dollars; and the malfeasance continues today as Interior contractors get hundreds of millions of dollars to do little more than perpetuate a myth.

Despite the payment of a king's ransom in taxpayer dollars to the largest accounting firms in the nation, not a single one will provide any assurance that any trust account balance is fairly or accurately stated. One may (properly) inquire how a firm engaged in the practice of rendering opinions and assurance can be paid hundreds of millions of dollars to not render an opinion and not provide the Indian beneficiaries any assurance about the historical management of their trust assets. Everyone else will recognize the government's artless weaving of another dishonest myth.

The sad truth is that more than a billion trust records have been systemically destroyed. Records over several generations across all Indian country have been destroyed. And the evidence indicates that the destruction of trust records continues.

It should come as no surprise then that the government's accounting plan downplays the importance of records. ''The absence of supporting documentation does not imply an error,'' the plan asserts. Contractors are permitted to ''reconstruct missing transaction records'' as they deem appropriate. In other circumstances, the government assumes that disbursements from the Individual Indian Trust were paid to beneficiaries despite the fact that the trust's records systems were not tested and negotiated checks were destroyed, at least for the first 100 years of the trust. The government assumes that oil and gas production and revenue data is accurate notwithstanding that the inspector general has identified fraud in the Minerals Management Service audit process and a Senate Special Committee on Investigations has found pervasive fraud in Indian oil and gas programs.

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Instead of preparing a proper accounting plan, the government has prepared a plan that it has captioned the ''Litigation Support Accounting,'' the principal purpose of which is to limit the liability of the government. There is no mention of the government's fiduciary duty to provide a fair and accurate accounting to all beneficiaries for all their trust funds. So, just what does the government's accounting plan entail?

Fully implemented, the Litigation Support Accounting entails the reconciliation of 6,600 transactions. That's it; there's nothing else planned. And, on this point, the government appears to be truthful because reconciliation work on the 6,600 transactions was completed in 2005, more than two years ago, and there's been no discernible reconciliation activity since. It is difficult to articulate just how meaningless the reconciliation of 6,600 transactions is to this class of all past and present individual Indian Trust beneficiaries, but the government's witnesses during the October trial provide valuable insight into some of the ways this accounting falls far short.

Of the approximately 500,000 current Indian Trust beneficiaries who are covered by our lawsuit (no one knows how many deceased beneficiaries are in the certified class), 268,000 will receive a statement under the government's plan. The balance of the 232,000 beneficiaries will be told nothing. As noted above, 6,600 transactions are to be reconciled. This means that no more than 1.3 percent of the certified class of plaintiffs will have any reconciliation activity in their account. If you are lucky enough to be one of the 1.3 percent of beneficiaries to have one of the transactions in your account reconciled, you should know that the transaction was not reconciled according to any professional standards used by any licensed professional anywhere in the world for any purpose.

If you are a potential recipient, you should know a few more things. You should also know that there is no assurance that the statement you receive is even relevant to your trust funds because the government has not devised a way to test whether all revenues are properly posted to your account. You should know that the government has not tested the accuracy of your contemporaneously recorded land ownership interests. You should know that the opening balance in your account was never verified. You should know that the government did not verify that the interest earnings in your account were correct. You should know that the government did not verify that your ancestor's trust assets, which you inherited, were properly and accurately transferred to you. You should know that if the government failed to collect your trust funds or deposited your trust funds in a different account that it will not be reflected in your account. And, of course, no independent certified public accountant is willing to provide you any assurance whatsoever. They know the so-called accounting work is a sham.

Many will express shock or dismay that the executive branch has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on favored accountants and statisticians with nothing to show for it while we, as a nation, are at war overseas.

As a citizen and a taxpayer, I am outraged. However, as an Indian Trust beneficiary engaged in a decades-long fight against this government, I can no longer express surprise, just disgust.

The Interior Department is engaged in myth-making of historic proportions and it continues to be laid bare in the federal district court in Washington, D.C.

Elouise Cobell is a member of the Blackfeet Nation from Browning, Mont. She is the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit Cobell v. Kempthorne, which challenges the federal government's admitted mismanagement of the Indian Trust.