WASHINGTON – Since 2003, Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall has been relating the sad circumstance of a diabetic tribal citizen who died longing for a hydraulic lift on her van [to help her get around with a wheelchair] while the Interior Department delayed issuing the check that would have paid for it.
Hall’s accounts – made in federal district court in 2003, at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on March 28 and at a Center for American Progress forum on April 11 – have served to emphasize alleged abuses of Individual Indian Money account holders by Interior during the Cobell v. Norton class action lawsuit over federal mismanagement of Indian trust funds.
Such claims are often impossible to check out because records of the IIM trust accounts are shielded from public view by privacy laws. But in the case Hall has regularly mentioned, the woman in question is deceased. As a result, the privacy laws do not apply and Interior can discuss her account, according to Interior’s Special Trustee for American Indians, Ross Swimmer.
Swimmer acknowledges past problems in IIM account management but contends that in every case of publicly alleged malpractice, Interior follow-up has found another side to the story. By the time Hall repeated his remarks at the April 11 forum, Swimmer felt compelled to respond.
In an April 20 letter authorized by Swimmer, the Office of the Special Trustee informed Hall that the woman in question had sold most of her trust property in June 1987, had received little more than $5 from range unit income in her IIM account in the three years preceding her death, and at her death had left $13.65 in her IIM account. (Interior does not distribute IIM checks until account balances reach $15.)
In addition, the letter indicates that “no pending mineral payments or other forms of trust income” were due the woman in her IIM account.
Her IIM account would not have contained close to enough money to pay for a $1,500 hydraulic lift in the several years or more before her decease, according to Interior records.
Hall’s political counsel, Chris Stearns, said the chairman considered it inappropriate to discuss the IIM account of a deceased tribal citizen. He added that the chairman might respond publicly to the Interior letter if Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, wanted more information from him.
Swimmer said there is enough misinformation in the public domain on the IIM accounts. The one-sided horror stories are hard to dispel, he added, and meanwhile Interior gets no credit for the extensive reforms it has undertaken.
“We want to keep the public record factual,” he said, a message he has shared with Interior’s 50 trust officers in the field.
“Whether it’s appropriate to discuss a deceased person’s account – well, Tex brought this up.”