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Trust bill seen as starting point

WASHINGTON - Carol Lone Bear, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes with
diabetes, had her legs amputated. She wanted help to expedite her
Individual Indian Money account check which would have helped her buy a
used van with a hydraulic lift that would allow her mobility to play bingo
if she wanted.

Lone Bear passed on before her account was reconciled.

"It was sad to not be able to help," said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three
Affiliated Tribes and president of the National Congress of American
Indians.

Legislation introduced by chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian
Affairs Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and committee vice chairman Sen. Byron
Dorgan, D-N.D. met with praise and criticism from both sides of trust
reform. The intent is to bring about a settlement for IIM account holders
so Lone Bear's story will not be repeated.

Tribal leaders, however, expressed displeasure that some 50 points they
brought to the committee, developed by a national task force, were not part
of the new bill. Dorgan, however, said those principles were used to draft
the bill.

McCain defended the proposed legislation: "The litigation is draining
resources from Indian country. In earlier bills I included a provision to
allow the litigation to reach a conclusion. Two mediators and bills I
introduced have not succeeded.

"Earlier this year, with the support of plaintiffs and defendants and with
the support of many in Indian country, I said I would make one good attempt
to resolve this legislatively," McCain said.

Cobell v. Norton has been in progress for nearly 10 years and there appears
no end in sight. Senate Bill 1439 would encourage negotiations from both
parties tribal members involved with land usage and mineral resources and
the Department of Interior - to reach an agreeable settlement.

The fiercest critic of the proposed legislation has been Elouise Cobell,
principle plaintiff in the Cobell case. She is a member of the Blackfeet
Nation.

McCain said it was made clear that the bill would provide a basis for
discussion.

He said he could understand how many would be disappointed in the bill,
which is the nature of a settlement proposal that nobody gets everything
they want.

Trust standards and independent oversight have always been at the forefront
of what the tribal leadership wants to see in any trust reform, Hall
reiterated at the hearing.

"NCAI believes standards are the cornerstone tenets of reform, and there
must be a body with true oversight authority," Hall said.

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When pressed on the issue of support for negotiating a settlement with the
legislation, Hall offered support for a unified effort to achieve a fair
and comprehensive bill.

"As introduced, this bill is a starting point. It needs to go further and
major changes must be made, and I am committed to working with Indian
country to unify behind the bill," Hall said.

Gray said the most positive aspect of the bill is that it was introduced.

Cost of litigation and accounting is a major issue. Money spent on
litigation and accounting, and money to be spent on attorneys' fees,
becomes an issue, if not a contentious issue.

It could cost $10 billion to reconcile the accounts from 1887.

Jim Cason, associate deputy secretary of Interior, said it already cost
$100 million in accounting costs thus far, and that more would have to be
spent. The recently-accomplished accounting included only the years in
which electronic accounts were available: 1988 to the present. The district
court and the appellate court ruled that the accounts should go back to
1887.

Cason said that errors on underpayment and overpayment would equal out,
with a net difference of $10,000. Using 1887 as a starting point,
plaintiffs in Cobell claim it could be in the hundreds of billions of
dollars.

Cason said the proposed legislation would resolve accounting claims and the
land fractionation, and provide for a consolidation program. Cason did not
go so far as to suggest that Interior supported the bill as is, but said
nobody knows what accounting would show since 1887. "We don't know; nobody
knows."

Special trustee Ross Swimmer said there could be billions in discrepancies
in the trust funds over 100 years, but there was "no wholesale fraud. Money
came in and money went out. The plaintiffs have said a number of $13
billion a year coming in with nothing going out."

Dorgan said when the bill was made public, it was referred to as step that
would hopefully be in the right direction.

"Indian people have been cheated, bilked and defrauded over a long period
of time. I understand that, I agree with that and this country needs to
deal with that. It's been the case with respective trust accounts. We can't
undo that.

"What do we do now? [We have] two choices: we can be actively involved
trying to reach some legislative solution to this that is acceptable to
everyone, or we could just say we got a lot of other things we need to work
on - you all just handle it, let the courts handle it, there are too many
discordant voices out there, can't pass legislation.

"We have chosen to not go with that approach. It's counterproductive for
this country and for Indian country," Dorgan said.