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Pallone: Indian trust reform delays are irresponsible

Seven years after Elouise Cobell filed her now famous class action suit alleging government mismanagement of Indian lands by the federal government, a new report shows gross mismanagement continues at the Department of Interior. The report, released last month by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, should serve as a wake-up call to the Interior Department to cease all stalling tactics and finally resolve this dispute.

The District Court's report highlights the government's failure to properly manage trust lands. Under federal law, the United States government negotiates leases with outside interests - such as timber companies or mining operations - that want to harvest natural resources from Indian land. The government is then supposed to collect the royalties and distribute them to Indian landowners.

Unfortunately, the investigative report shows oil and gas companies paid Native Americans just a fraction of the amounts they paid private landowners for the right to run pipelines across their property. For instance, utility companies laying natural gas and oil pipelines across the San Juan basin in New Mexico paid $25 to $40 for the right to cross every five and one half yards of Navajo land managed by the government. These same companies paid substantially higher rates to private interests. The investigation found the companies paid $140 to $557 to cross the same amount of land owned and managed by private individuals and companies.

Ross Swimmer, the newly confirmed special trustee for American Indians, attempted to explain these inequities by claiming Indian trust lands were likely to be less valuable to utility companies because of the "bureaucracy" involved in leasing land with the federal government. While it is true that the "red tape" a company must cut through when dealing with the government can grow costly and burdensome, I find Mr. Swimmer's response to be unsatisfactory in addressing the extreme differences in price. It is clear to me that this is yet another attempt by Interior to avoid fulfilling its trust obligations to Native Americans.

As a trustee, I believe it is the responsibility of the Department of Interior to try to negotiate a fair and equitable lease for these lands, rather then allowing industry to set the rates. Furthermore, Interior should re-evaluate the process in which they lease out trust lands to make it more attractive to potential companies who are willing to pay competitive rates.

These latest revelations once again raise the question of Interior's competence in fulfilling its fiduciary responsibility to Native Americans. Secretary Gale Norton might contest that assessment, arguing that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recently vacated the contempt charges against her. While that is true, the court left untouched the lower court's ruling that she was an "unfit trustee," who had failed to discharge fundamental duties owed to the 500,000 Indian Trust beneficiaries.

Furthermore, over the past seven years the Department of Interior has repeatedly tried to circumvent the courts, the plaintiffs, and particularly Congress in resolving this issue. More often then not, Interior has sought a solution that would benefit the department rather than the tribes. For instance, in order to save both time and money Interior has continually attempted to conduct a statistical sampling of Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts rather then a full historical accounting, the preferred methodology of accounting by the plaintiffs and IIM account holders.

I am concerned that the lifting of contempt charges against the Secretary will leave little incentive for Ms. Norton to cooperate with the other parties involved in seeking a fair and equitable resolution. Since her acquittal, Ms. Norton showed her unwillingness to cooperate with the court by demanding the dismissal of the court-appointed Special Master, Alan Balaran, because she disagreed with his findings in the U.S. District Court's report. I am happy to know that the lawyers representing Elouise Cobell and the other plaintiffs in this case are appealing the D.C. Circuit Court's opinion and asking that the civil contempt citations be reinstated against Secretary Norton. Should those efforts fail, I believe Congress should step in to ensure Interior adopts a more inclusive framework for reaching a solution to trust reform.

I am urging the Department of Interior to stop engaging in delaying tactics and defensive maneuvers. It is time for Interior to take responsibility for its repeated failure at fulfilling its fiduciary responsibility to Native Americans. We need to get on with the business of trust reform, and as such, I recommend that Interior work with the courts, the plaintiffs and Congress to reach an equitable solution for all parties involved. Then and only then will the U.S. government be able to rebuild its trust relationship with Native Americans.

Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. is currently serving his eighth full term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Pallone represents New Jersey's Sixth Congressional District, serving as a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Resources Committee.