Indian trust fund specifics sought

The plaintiffs in a long-running court case filed against the federal government to straighten out its management of American Indian trust funds have asked a federal judge to begin a second trial in January to settle the matter of how much the government owes.

Citing court-appointed monitor Joseph Kieffer's July report that said the Interior and Justice departments haven't attempted to account for money owed to Indians—despite a December 1999 decision ordering them to do so — the plaintiffs representing Indians in a class-action suit requested that a second trial be held to find an exact amount, which could reach several billion dollars.

"The first Kieffer report uncovers and confirms what plaintiffs have claimed all along, that defendants have not taken—nor did they ever intend to take—the steps necessary to fulfill their duty to account to individual Indian trust beneficiaries," according to the motion.

Plaintiff spokesman Phillip Smith declined to comment, saying the motion "speaks for itself." Interior officials could not be reached for comment.

The motion follows a separate opinion issued by a court special master late last month, finding that DOI officials routinely recorded over e-mail backup tapes containing messages that potentially could have been relevant to the trust funds case.

The special master rejected the government's claim that hard copies of e-mail records provide the same information, and found that DOI officials "had sustained a policy of overwriting e-mail backup tapes and destroying potentially responsive evidence on the thin reed that they were under no obligation to do so," according to the opinion.

It's not clear how a final amount would be determined. There are tens of millions of trust fund records in Interior's possession, many stored in boxes or outdated computer systems. Many more have been destroyed or lost during more than 100 years of management.

The implementation plan for the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Trust Asset Accounting Management System (TAAMS), a national system designed to handle trust-related documents, includes "data cleanup" as a major step.

In March, Interior's special trustee for American Indians, Thomas Slonaker, testified before Congress that TAAMS won't be fully accurate until historical data is corrected.

Interior has held Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years, leasing the properties and managing revenues earned off them through farming, oil drilling and other activities. Longtime mismanagement has left landowners and descendants unable to know how much money is in their accounts.

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