Interior gets failing grade on trust reform plan

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WASHINGTON - The National Congress of American Indians is joining the Cobell v. Norton class action lawsuit with an amicus curiae or "friend of the court" brief that will address the tribes' side of the Trust fund issue.

The Cobell litigation deals primarily with the Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts held by approximately 300,000 descendants of tribal members whose land assets have been managed, or mismanaged, by the Interior Department since the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887.

NCAI attorney John Dossett said the tribes have been sitting on the sideline in the case and it was time to get more involved. According to tribal officials, Cobell v. Norton deals only with the IIM accounts while the tribal trust accounting system is also in disarray.

Some tribal leaders are also angry that the plan includes very little of their input.

According to Tex Hall, president of the NCAI, the plan submitted by Interior does not have the proper standards for trust fund management for which tribal leaders were asking. He denounced one provision of the plan that provided for a selected group of tribal leaders to work with Interior on trust reform.

"There is an indication she (Norton) doesn't listen to the tribes," Hall said. "Like the task force, they walked away, which shows they don't listen to the tribes. No way will any plan be successful without the tribes."

Said Keith Harper, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund and a lead attorney in Cobell v. Norton, "They keep saying the normal trust standards don't apply, but what standards do apply? It can't be standardless. With trust you have to have standards; they haven't identified those. How can they come up with a plan with standards not articulated? It's not surprising they have a plan that does nothing."

Harper said that Interior's selection of an advisory committee resembled the days when treaties were drafted. He said the government selected a certain group of people, gave them medals and called them leaders.

"They are looking for individual tribal leaders to take interest in actions that are not in the best interest of Indian country. They are in a desperate place and are looking for salvation.

"They can make it look very attractive to individual tribal leaders. We have an obligation to the account holders who have been abused through the century not to undermine the justice they are seeking at the last minute by betrayal," Harper said.

"We have to be aware of medal 'chiefing' by this administration. Interior wants to control the process with their handpicked men."

Harper accused Interior of organizing clandestine meetings with a group of handpicked leaders and excluding the National Congress of American Indians, one of the lead organizations in trust reform.

Interior holds more than 10 million acres in trust for individual Indians and manages the oil, mineral and agricultural leases on land that involves some 4 million interests. Some accounts, at least 20,000 in the IIM system, are only worth $1.

The tribal leaders behind the NCAI brief also dispute the management of the IIM funds and the tribal funds. The leaders said a year ago their basic premise was that standards provide adequate accountability, management and record keeping at the lower levels, nearer the land owners.

The new plan still maintains a central office with some lower level personnel at the tribal level.

The tribal opposition also demands an independent oversight group. Interior continues to argue that an internal oversight office will be sufficient and resists outside control.

"We are where the rubber hits the road," Harper said. "All these things are fine, but I think the debate has to surround how we get a trust management system. When push comes to shove, how do we build one? Nothing the government says furthers the debate. They once again submitted a plan to make a plan, contrary to what the court asked for."

Hall said the chance of getting a good plan that Indian country could live with still lies in Congress. Tribal leaders from the Task Force will submit legislation, he said.

"The main issue for us is that we are getting to a resolution in this case, with or without the government with us. This court wisely set the foundation for a structural injunction with how courts go about resolving things like this, and the next step may be receivership," Harper said.

"The court increasingly mandates the government take action and the government responds with defiance. We will get to a place where they will have justified in everyone's minds to have a receivership," he added.