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Legislation could end trust lawsuit

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WASHINGTON - Legislation that could bring about a settlement of the trust
fund fiasco was introduced July 20 in the U.S. Senate.

Sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and co-sponsored by Sen. Byron
Dorgan, D-N.D., the bill - if passed - would distribute funds to the
Individual Indian Money account holders at a fair and equitable rate and
end Cobell v. Norton, now in its 10th year.

The bill provides a method to consolidate fractionated land with a purchase
plan by the secretary of the Interior Department that would pay fair market
value with additional financial incentives.

The bill also describes the restructuring of the office of special trustee
and would require the preparation of financial statements for individual
account holders.

McCain challenged national tribal leadership to provide possible solutions
to the 100-year-old trust account problem.

A tribal leadership working task force submitted 50 trust principles to the
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The bill does not address any of the
principles specifically, which upset some of the task force leaders. Tex
Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians; Jim Gray,
president of the Intertribal Monitoring Association; and Eloise Cobell,
lead plaintiff in Cobell, expressed their concerns.

Dorgan said those principles were considered when the bill was constructed.

The bill does not specify a total amount for compensation to the trust
account holders. McCain said the bill was a start and, with input from
Indian country, it will change.

The bill specifies that a "Special Master" be appointed to distribute the
funds. The tribal leaders' task force, when submitting the 50 principles,
mentioned a settlement figure of $27.5 billion. McCain agreed that the
figure would be in the billions of dollars. The money that was allegedly
misplaced or lost due to fraud or malfeasance belongs to the individual
account holders and is not an entitlement or special program fund. The
money comes from the leasing of land for grazing or farming, oil and gas
leases, and other lease arrangements of property owned by the individual.

The bill authorizes the establishment of an "Undersecretary for Indian
Affairs" position. The undersecretary would report directly to the
secretary of Interior and be appointed by the president. The change would
create a more powerful position than assistant secretary for Indian
Affairs. Additional duties of the undersecretary would be the
responsibility of trust accounting oversight. The Office of Special Trustee
would be terminated and all duties given to the undersecretary.

What is not in the bill but is of concern to tribal leadership is a section
that would set trust standards and set up an independent oversight
organization.

The bill was introduced with the intent of reaching a settlement in Cobell
to stop the financial drain on Indian country. It was expected that it
would cost more to reconcile the historic accounts from 1887 than would
have been distributed to the account holders, the bill stated.