Trust funds reform process heads for a busy season

WASHINGTON - An aide to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell said the Senate will assert gradual pressure to bring about settlement in the Cobell class action lawsuit.

The lawsuit, brought by the class of Individual Indian Monies account holders against the Interior Department for its management of the trust, has drawn regular criticism from members of the 108th Congress, which must appropriate funds to pay for Interior's legal defense and for the larger effort to reform trust funds management. Most recently, Campbell, R-Colo, and his co-chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, sent a letter urging settlement to all parties litigant in the long-running case. Absent signs of progress in the near future, the letter threatened congressional intervention.

The Campbell aide, speaking on background but not for direct attribution, said a likely next step for the senators would be to offer a Senate resolution for settling the case. The final step would be to pass legislation prescribing a mediated settlement.

The aide added that Campbell and the Senate Committee as a whole remain focused on settling the issues derived from the historical mismanagement of the IIM accounts, rather than venturing into the seemingly even more difficult arena of future trust accounts management.

Against this background in Congress, the trust management reform process that began with a congressional law in 1994 heads into perhaps its busiest season in the courts. Among the major activities:

*Court-appointed special trust master Alan M. Balaran has filed a report with the court accusing the Interior of collusion to conceal the shortcomings of its Trust Assets and Accounting Management System (TAAMS). Dan Dubray, Interior's director of communications at the BIA, denied any intent by the department to mislead the court on TAAMS. As a putative cornerstone of the Interior's efforts to comply with the reforms demanded by Congress, TAAMS became the subject of contentious questioning from Campbell at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in 1999. Then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt defended the initiative stoutly if not in any particular detail - at one point he relied on a criticism of the mindset out of which conflicting opinions on computer technology supposedly arose. Judge Royce C. Lamberth, more or less maneuvered into delivering sarcastic praise of Interior for planting the seeds of change a full five years after Congress handed down its mandate, finally gave TAAMS the benefit of his very substantial doubt. Now that Balaran has found TAAMS to have fallen on rocky ground, one can only suspect Lamberth may have a stronger reaction in store than sarcasm.

*On April 24, current Interior Secretary Gale Norton is scheduled to appeal Lamberth's finding that Interior officials, including herself, are unfit to manage the trust accounts.

*On April 23 and 24, Balaran will preside over oral proceedings to sort out whether a host of past and present federal employees should be held in contempt of court for their roles in the destruction of trust funds records.

*On May 1, another phase of the IIM class action lawsuit is scheduled to commence, in hopes of arriving at an agreed-upon representation of monetary losses from the IIM accounts.