Sen. Tom Daschle: BIA Trust Fund is Indian country's Enron

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In recent months, news of corporate mismanagement and its consequences for the pensions of individual American workers has sent shock waves through the country. Legislators, economists and academics, appalled by the Enron experience, have called for swift and decisive action to strengthen corporate accounting practices and protect employee pension accounts.

Unknown to many of these legislators, economists and academics, a similar injustice is occurring out of the public spotlight to many American Indians. And the responsible party is not corporate management, but rather the federal government.

For generations, Indian country has seen first-hand how persistent and devastating accounting mismanagement can be. Today, the BIA may owe as much as $10 billion to as many as 500,000 Indians. Tex Hall, President of the National Congress of American Indians, refers to the trust debacle as the "Indian Enron case."

The restoration of the administrative integrity of Indian trust funds and assets must be a higher national priority. And tribal leaders must be part of a timely solution.

That is why I joined Senators John McCain and Tim Johnson in introducing legislation designed to jump-start the process of fixing the long-standing problem of mismanagement of Indian trust assets. Our legislation, based in significant measure on the ideas of Tex Hall, Lower Brule Chairman Mike Jandreau and other tribal leaders across the country, would establish a Deputy Secretary for Trust Management and Reform in the Department of Interior to provide oversight of all the trust fund and trust asset administration. In our view, it is essential that a top Interior Department official be assigned the sole responsibility of fixing this longstanding problem.

Last fall, after years of insufficient attention and under the pressure of court action, the Secretary of the Interior hastily unveiled plans to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management and segregate the oversight and accounting of trust-related assets in a new Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management. This plan was presented to the court with minimal consultation with the tribes or individual Indian account holders, not to mention Congress.

In South Dakota, tribal leaders communicated to Tim Johnson and me their observation that the Secretary's solution appeared to be a fait accompli and their concern that it could actually hurt those it was supposed to help. They asked how this shuffling of bureaucratic boxes on an organization chart would improve the management of trust funds and whether this new structure would impact other BIA programs. To a person, they felt strongly that this proposal should not be implemented without further consultation with the Indian people affected by the management changes.

In response, the Administration assured the Indian community and Congress that its reorganization plan was not set in stone and that the views of Indian country would be solicited before final action was taken. Yet, the Interior Department then proceeded quietly to request that $200 million from the BIA and $100 million from the Office of the Special Trustee be reprogrammed to "a single organization that will report to the Secretary through the Assistant Secretary, Indian Trust." This contradiction set off red flags in Congress, and a clear message was sent to Secretary Norton by Senators Inouye, Campbell, Byrd, Johnson, and others that no action should be taken to implement her proposed reorganization plan administratively.

Given these developments, Senators McCain, Johnson and I felt that Congress must be more assertive in helping shape action on trust reform. Our bill is intended to refocus this debate and provide further opportunity for the suggestions of tribal chairs and other representatives from Indian country to be incorporated into the final trust reform plan.

An effective long-term solution to the Indian trust problem must be based on government-to-government dialogue. I hope that the discussion the McCain-Johnson-Daschle bill generates will not only provide the catalyst for meaningful tribal involvement in the search for a solution to this very serious problem, but also form the basis for effective trust reform.

Tom Daschle, a democrat, is the senior senator from South Dakota and serves as the Senate Majority Leader. In addition to his leadership post, Daschle also serves as a member of the Agriculture, Finance and Rules Committees. In past Congresses, he has served on the Veterans Affairs, Indian Affairs and Ethics committees. Daschle is a native of Aberdeen, S.D.