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Secretary Salazar Wants His Pay

Cobell Indians Still Waiting for Their Money

A new congressional battle over a pay increase for Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar serves to indirectly highlight the long wait Indians have faced in receiving proper payment from a government that has long mismanaged their trust assets.

The fight over Salazar’s pay has been led by Sen. David Vitter, D-La., who has never been a friend to Indian country, opposing many Indian-focused bills during his controversial time in office. The senator has been holding up a nearly $20,000 wage increase for Salazar – which would put his yearly salary at nearly $200,000, in line with all other Obama administration Cabinet heads – until Salazar agrees to end a deepwater drilling moratorium that Vitter says is costing his state money.

“I will end my efforts to block your salary increase,” Vitter wrote in a recent letter to Salazar, only when the rate of permits for deepwater wells had been increased by Interior to six per month. Salazar would not agree to those terms, so his pay adjustment has been effectively blocked by Vitter for the time being. Individual senators have the ability to take such actions.

The ultimatum soon had Democrats in Washington claiming that Vitter was attempting to bribe and coerce Salazar into getting his way—which would be a violation of federal law.

“That position is wrong,” Salazar wrote in a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “And it must be made perfectly clear that his attempt cannot and will not affect the execution of the solemn legal responsibilities that the Department undertakes on behalf of the American people.”

Reid agreed, issuing a statement May 25: “I have worked with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on this issue for weeks. And it is wrong for Sen. Vitter to try to get something in return for moving forward on a matter that the Senate has considered routine for more than a century.”

Vitter’s camp, meanwhile, has maintained that he’s done nothing wrong in placing the hold.

Right or wrong, the situation serves to highlight just how quickly a politician will work to resolve an issue when it involves his or her own paycheck. But when it came to resolving the mismanagement of trust assets at the Interior Department of Indian funds since the 1800s, several department secretaries passed the buck, especially during the Bush administration. Courts have even ruled that some Interior officials over the years had purposely stymied efforts to do a proper accounting of the missing and lost monies.

Salazar, for his part, agreed strongly with a settlement to the Cobell case, involving the trust mismanagement, promoting a $3.4 billion federal payout for affected Indians in 2009. Many Indians thought that it was the right thing for him to do, and appreciated his effort.

Still, not one cent of that money has come to any Indians to date, as complex legal proceedings continue to play out in federal court. Not to mention the fact that many Indians feel the deal is much too small considering the number of aggrieved parties, and they feel the Obama administration could have granted a much larger settlement.

Meanwhile, Salazar has upped his personal push to get his $20,000, sending impassioned letters to congressional heads, and reaching out to the Capitol Hill media about the situation. If only every Interior official had worked so hard to get Indians their money. For now, only time will tell if he’ll be paid before the Cobell Indian beneficiaries.