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Norton plan a charade

Prodded by a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 500,000 individual Indians and by a federal judge's threat to hold her in criminal contempt, Interior Secretary Gale Norton has suddenly come up with a proposal to 'reorganize' her department's Indian trust responsibilities, hoping the plan will avert a court takeover, preserve her turf and save her from a huge fine or even a few hours in jail.

Unfortunately, even though the Individual Indian Monies (IIM) trust is the worst managed, most scandalous program in the federal government, Ms. Norton's idea for sweeping changes is too little, too late. (Or as a federal appeals court described Interior's trust reform charade, '... a day late and a dollar short.') It's also misleading. It tries to hide the fact that the main beneficiary of such an overhaul would not be the hundreds of thousands of individual Indians whose money is at stake, but Ms. Norton herself.

The real strategy behind the secretary's announced proposal is one we have seen many times from Interior since we filed our class action litigation in 1996 to force a cleanup of the IIM trust. Her real goals are: 1) to save her own skin, 2) to deflect blame for the upheaval her plan will cause onto the Indian trust lawsuit plaintiffs, and 3) to delay justice and buy time by stalling, ideally until the next administration comes along.

The same strategy succeeded for her predecessor, former secretary Babbitt, who managed to stall until Bill Clinton got out of town (Babbitt was found in contempt of court over the trust, but we, the taxpayers, paid his fine).

Although Ms. Norton would like it to appear that she's been on top of the trust debacle since her first day on the job, the fact is that the IIM trust has been consistently mismanaged for more than a century. The Clinton administration did nothing to improve the mess, while fighting tooth and claw against the Indian plaintiffs in court. The Bush administration likewise has failed for 11 months to effect trust reform, while lying to Congress and the court about its supposed progress.

As two court-appointed watchdogs have made perfectly clear in their reports to the judge, the IIM trust today is in worse shape than ever.

What has Ms. Norton worried ? and has drawn her undivided attention to the IIM trust for the first time ? is not only the risk of contempt, but a request by the Indian plaintiffs that the judge in our case, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, remove the trust from Interior and place it in the hands of an independent, outside receiver. This would be the kind of fix ? for the first time ever ? that the IIM trust has needed for decades.

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Receivership would bring to bear real professionalism and expertise, as well as something the trust has sorely lacked, real accountability. The historic trust relationship would remain intact; in fact, it would be reinforced and enhanced.

Secretary Norton's proposal creates confusion and doubt in Indian country because it would 'reorganize' most of Interior's Indian trust responsibilities, both tribal and individual, into a new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management. Some current and former Interior officials ? including the former assistant secretary for Indian affairs from the previous administration ? are telling people, 'I-told-you-so; that the class action lawsuit has driven Interior to take this drastic step.' It isn't true.

Our litigation involves only the IIM trust and the individual Indian trust beneficiaries; it does not involve the tribes. Our request for receivership is for the IIM trust only, and has nothing to do with tribal trusts. It is Secretary Norton who has chosen this moment, to divide Indian country, to float an overly broad proposal that is vague and over-reaching at the same time.

We have reached the point where both practicality and simple justice demand that Interior be stripped of the trust. Both Judge Lamberth and the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., have ruled that the government has the same trust obligations as a bank owes to its customers. It must account for every dime, and it must operate the trust for the good of the beneficiaries (many of whom are among the poorest citizens of this country). Interior has proved it is capable of doing neither.

As we said in our request to the judge, 'Receivers are commonly appointed by courts to oversee trusts ... where senior management is incompetent, untrustworthy, or guilty of malfeasance, as is the case here.'

It is not acceptable for Interior to continue to control $500 million a year in revenue from Indian-owned lands without systems to track it and without management with the skills and the will to account for it.

We believe the court, weary and impatient of excuses, will see the latest 'reorganization' plan for what it really is ? a last-minute attempt to save the secretary's hide.