Skip to main content

Washington in brief

LAMBERTH HALTS TRUST LAND SALES

The federal judge in the Cobell lawsuit over Indian trust accounts issued a
temporary restraining order Aug. 31 that prevented the planned sale of
oil-rich Indian lands in Oklahoma. The Interior Department had established
Sept. 1 as the last day for bids on the land.

Interior, which has ultimate administrative authority over land held in
trust for tribes and individual Indians, is the target of the lawsuit
alleging billion-dollar losses to Indian people and tribes due to alleged
federal mismanagement of the government's trust obligation. Royce C.
Lamberth, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Columbia, has
decided the case against the government; it is currently in mediation.

In issuing the Aug. 31 restraining order, Lamberth responded to allegations
of the plaintiff class that the sale would represent an ongoing breach of
trust obligations. Interior has not historically performed land appraisals
or surveys before such sales, leading to concerns that Indian people and
tribes cannot make informed decisions as to the fair market value of their
assets. These concerns formed the core of a court-ordered report that
faulted Interior's land sale and leasing practices.

Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell issued a statement that read in part, "We
have no desire to curtail the ability of private Indian landowners to sell
their land. We fully support their right to do so. The question is whether
the government's auction of trust land will ensure that fair market value
is paid to each trust beneficiary who chooses to sell his or her land."

Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney for the plaintiffs and
a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, added, "This land and its
subsurface rights lie at the heart of the Individual Indian Trust
litigation. Secretary [of Interior Gale] Norton is trying to sell the core
asset - the land and its natural resources - of this trust without giving
the court or plaintiffs any idea as to whether prudent steps would be taken
to ensure that the sale is consummated at fair market value and solely in
the best interests of each trust beneficiary. This not only violates every
principle of trust law, it also directly violates orders of this court and
Interior's own regulations. That is why Judge Lamberth took the appropriate
action and stopped this land alienation until there could be assurance that
the rights of Indian trust beneficiaries are fully protected in accordance
with law."

MARTIN AND BIA NOT AT FAULT IN RECOGNITION CASE

In her last week at the BIA, former acting director Aurene Martin has been
cleared of wrongdoing in the controversial recognition of the Schaghticoke
in Connecticut as a tribe.

An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General at the Interior
Department, where the BIA is housed, found the case had been decided
properly within the established process, transparently, and with recourse
for the several aggrieved parties in Connecticut. These include the
attorney general and governor, who continued to berate the past decision
along with the latest OIG finding.

One of the most controversial points in the case was the tribe's lack of
documentary evidence for its continuous existence as a political entity.
Martin considered the tribe's unbroken relationship with the state as
evidence that made the historical record whole.

BUSH ORDERS ON INTELLIGENCE REFORM SEEN AS INTERIM MEASURES

Following almost two dozen congressional committee hearings in August on
intelligence reform, President George W. Bush has signed executive orders
that would create a national counterterrorism center and provide new
authority for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Executive orders do not have the force of law and maybe overturned or
ignored by later presidents. But in this case they represent reform in an
election year, an indication that the president is addressing some of the
needs identified in the 9/11 Commission Report while debate rages in
Congress. Fixing many of the intelligence-gathering flaws exposed in the
report will require congressional action.

Among several proposals that have emerged from the month of debate
following release of the 9/11 Commission Report in late July, one from Sen.
Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would diminish the CIA's authority and augment that of
the new counterterrorism center.