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Needed: A better memory in coverage of the Indian Trust Program

COMMENTARY | September 06, 2005

A former Washington Post reporter who used to write about Indian affairs, now an activist, says the press has no institutional memory and is letting the Department of Interior off the hook in a law suit that is now almost ten years old.

By Bill McAllister



One of the biggest problems covering civil litigation that has lasted for nearly a decade is simply remembering who said what.


That's an issue I have encountered in assisting a group that filed a lawsuit in 1996 over the federal government's long-troubled Indian Trust program. I covered the filing of the suit when I was a Washington Post reporter. None of the other reporters from those days are still around and, as a result, government officials are getting away with misstatements about the lawsuit, titled Cobell versus Norton. The tempo of their misstatements has increased as Congress has begun to explore ways of settling the suit by legislation.


Here are the basics: The Indian Trust Program is run by the Department of Interior. It was created in 1887 to hold the proceeds of government-arranged leases of Indian lands, mostly in the West. The government then was attempting to break up tribal governments and to "civilize" Indians by making them farmers. It didn't believe Indians could handle their own finances. 


As it has turned out, the federal government has been unable to manage the Indians' money. The courts have declared that the Interior Department has mismanaged the trust from its inception. 


What is happening now is that Interior officials are attempting nothing short of trying to rewrite the history of the trust, contending that there are, in reality, few problems with the trust's current accounts.


One example of a rewrite is a comment by Ross Swimmer, the senior Interior official in charge of the Indian trust programs, who says the Cobell lawsuit is not about mismanagement at all. That’s not the way others see it. As the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said in 2001 in ordering the government to make an accounting of the Indian trust accounts: "These trusts were created over 100 years ago through an Act of Congress and have been mismanaged nearly as long.”


Yet the media are allowing Swimmer and other Interior officials to make such statements without challenge.


Other rewritings of history by the Interior Department include recent claims of inability to find the massive fraud and mismanagement in the accounts that the Cobell plaintiffs have alleged. The fact is that Interior has already conceded fraud and mismanagement in court and congressional testimony.  


Here's the problem: Reporters are not asking Interior how many of the more than 500,000 trust accounts at issue have been examined by the department. Nor are they demanding to know what standards of accounting the department is using.


Under questioning by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) at a July 26, 2005, hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, James Cason, a deputy associate Interior secretary, conceded that Interior has examined only a small portion of the total accounts. And the ones it has examined are from 1985 forward – the most recent period, and the one in which accounts were placed on computers. 


Significantly, Cason could not tell McCain what percentage of accounts Interior has examined. He did acknowledge that more problems may emerge as they move back into periods in which account records were kept manually.


Assuming that there is no corruption in the accounts today – something the Cobell plaintiffs do not concede – the government is ignoring times when abuses of the trust account system were widespread.  


Some news accounts report without qualification Interior's claims that it can find no problems with the trust accounts. The Cobell plaintiffs say that government's claims that the accounts are fine must be qualified to state that the government has examined only a small percentage of the accounts. Significantly absent from the government's claims are what standards they are using to judge the accounts are accurate.


At the same time the government is saying the accounts are fine by their standards, it is significant that the courts have yet to approve a single account as properly reconciled. Not one.


U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, who has overseen the litigation for the past nine years, recently ordered the Interior Department to advise account holders that the department's data are so bad that they cannot be trusted to be accurate. Yet these are the same accounts that the government is telling the press are fine.


The government’s reaction to Lamberth’s ire over the protracted litigation: fire the judge. Unhappy with the Reagan appointee’s harsh language about trust abuses, the government has asked the DC appeals court to replace Lamberth as the judge hearing the Indians’ complaint.


Serious ongoing problems in the trust system were revealed in a recently concluded 59-day court hearing in Washington. Among them:


·         Hackers easily broke into government computers housing trust data. They testified they could have manipulated trust accounts.

·         A government computer expert testified supervisors threatened her job because she would not give false information about the security of government computers.

·         The Interior Department's own inspector-general gave the department an "F" for the lax security of the computers holding trust records; its former security officer gave it a "G."

·         Mary Johnson, an 80-year-old Navajo grandmother, told of having four wells on her land pumping oil non-stop for more than 50 years. "How can there be no money?" she asked a federal judge. Johnson said she gets only $600 a month under the government-arranged oil lease.    

·         Two other native leaders told of continuing abuses on the Navajo Reservation and in Idaho. In both cases, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials still pressure Indians to sign oil and land leases that benefit oil companies and big farming groups, the Indians said.


The government is claiming it now has thousands of trust records stored in a new federal storage facility in Kansas. But what about the thousands of key records that, according to court and congressional testimony, have been destroyed? Many of them were left to rot in barns or so fouled by rodents that they were deemed unusable.


Worse still, many leases of Indian lands were never recorded by government land agents. How are these Indians whose lands effectively were plundered by the government to be made whole – if only records the government has in hand now are used? 


The government has acknowledged in court that it still doesn't know the number of trust beneficiaries it serves. It doesn't know the value of the Indians' accounts or even the number of accounts it is supposedly administering.  How can the same federal agency that has made those admissions in court now say it can find no serious problems with the accounts?


How can it say it is using the same accounting systems "as those used in major private trust corporations?"


The truth is that it can say such things only as long as the press fails to remember how much the government has conceded in previous years. This was, after all, a case in which three Cabinet secretaries have been held in contempt of court for their actions.


It is about what one of those three, Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, has said is "the long and sorry history of the department's mismanagement of the Indian Trust Funds." 


People in Indian Country remember. 


The press should not let the government cover up its long record of mishandling the lands and the monies of the nation's first citizens. 

finally somebody gets it
Posted by susan lyons - citizen of the onondaga nation speaking for only myself
09/12/2005, 04:04 PM

I am so relieved to read articles where someone other than a native person themselves is able to acknowledge the huge discrepancies between what the U.S. government does as opposed to what they say they do. This unfourtunately does not only apply to native americans anymore (eminant domain, the lack of Federal government response to katrina) . The taxpaying citizens of this country are not getting their moneys worth. we need articles like this one printed in every newspaper in the united states.

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