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Profiles in Trust: Pillars of Reform

WASHINGTON - When the trust funds litigation in Cobell and other cases are finally resolved, people like lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, her fellow plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, a cast of Native American Rights Fund attorneys and other members of the legal team, as well as an honor roll of others will no doubt all wear every feather Native culture can bestow.

Congressional intervention would emphasize the mediation of adversarial differences that have dominated the case so far. By its very nature, and no doubt because of its historic importance, the hearing drew out a distilled record of essential information in the case as the ground beneath it begins to shift. This shift and the information it throws out, the new perspective it generates, leaves some reputations on higher public ground in this regard, and some not.

This multi-part series takes a look at a few who have found higher ground, followed by a look at one whose reputation as a former Interior Secretary may be settling into lower ground, at least on the subject of the trust funds: Bruce Babbitt.

Sidney Yates and Mike Synar: pillars of reform

A handful of national legislators stand out for their commitment to Indian trust funds reform. A short list would begin with the names of Sens. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii; Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.; and ? and actually there could be no short list. Where so many votes have been required, so many hearings convened, so much assiduous research involved and so much vigilant oversight, a host of lawmakers and their staffs would have to be named to any valid honor roll ? and then there would be another list of equally honored tribal leaders, led off perhaps by the late Arnold Sowmick of the Saginaw Chippewa.

Actual settlement of the trust funds accounts and reform of their management going forward ? that would be the time for such a list. For now, as a "paradigm shift" in the Cobell litigation moves a 20-plus-year reform process to a new future phase, it seems better to look back at those national lawmakers, no longer with us, who made it possible to move reform this far.

Rep. Sidney Yates, D-Ill., sided with tribes in many a struggle over his long career in the House of Representatives. He was the longest-serving member in the House when he retired, and that longevity brought him to the chairmanship of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

In that seat, he made the single move that in turn made Indian trust management reform inevitable, according to several close observers of the marathon process. After Interior and the BIA, abruptly and somewhat on the quiet, moved the trust accounts out to a private sector bank for audit and reconciliation efforts, Yates consulted Indian beneficiaries and their allies. They delivered the message, in essence, that Indians would never know a proper accounting of assets in the accounts if Interior washed its hands of them and let the private sector take over. Animating this message was the deep distrust many Indians felt for Interior's motives - the consensus was that the accounts would come back to the Interior, if they came back at all, magically scrubbed clean of discrepancies but without explanation as to what they were and how much money they involved.

So apprised, Yates put his mark on an Interior Appropriations bill when it came before his committee. By inserting a clause that required Interior to reconcile the trust accounts before contracting them to the private sector, Yates stopped Interior and the BIA in their tracks. Jim Parris, employed then at the BIA in a trust accounts oversight capacity, said that after Yates' bold stroke, the BIA knew it had a problem on its hands - and came quickly to the belief that Congress was serious about fixing it.

That was in 1987. Yates died in 1999, at the age of 91, full of years and honors.

A different perspective attends the career of Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla. Synar died in 1996, of a rare aggressive cancer, at the age of 46. His efforts on behalf of Indian country and trust reform are legion. But perhaps a tribute that appeared at the time of his death recaptures all that better than a detailed recitation. To the words reprinted below, one should add that Synar's time in the sun has lengthened with every year since his decease. In December 2000, Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan budget watchdog group in Washington, D.C., inducted Synar posthumously into its Taxpayer Hall of Fame - the organization's lifetime achievement award. Remarks on the occasion, almost five full years after his death, recognized his commitment to fiscal responsibility, certainly one of the forces that drove him on reform of the Indian trust accounts.

"Honoring Mike Synar" appeared in the 1996 January/February edition of "Business Alert," a now-defunct newsletter of First Nations Development Institute in Fredericksburg, Va. It read in part:

"Few if any of the warm and decent obituaries that bid farewell to former Congressman Mike Synar said anything about his work on the reform of Indian trust funds management. But the task he completed at the end of the 1994 legislative session was his second greatest gift to Indian country. His greatest was to take us seriously. Herewith, we pay last respects to a friend and a champion.

"Many people and groups pursued trust funds reform for 10 years, and many who were on board for a shorter term deserve great credit. But the Oklahoma lawmaker was our whip hand in Congress ?

"On trust funds reform, he and our staff stayed with us to the end, confronting the cagey entrenched bureaucracy of Washington at its worst with determination, knowledge and resourcefulness ?

"A poet of this century has dedicated famous lines to the finest names among us,

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.

Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,

And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

"For Indian people and for many others, Mike Synar is one such name."