Indian trust fund plaintiffs optimistic

With a newly-confirmed Interior Department secretary in charge, the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the department expressed optimism that they will see progress in fixing Interior's longstanding American Indian trust management problems.

"The key is Secretary [Gale] Norton surrounding herself with competent individuals who can get the job done," said Jeffrey Remple, an accountant working for the plaintiffs in a five-year-old class-action lawsuit. The suit was brought against Interior to force it to reform the way it manages trusts for some 500,000 American Indians.

"Anything is better than what the situation was under [former Secretary Bruce] Babbitt," Remple said.

Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs has held Indian-owned lands in trust since the 1800s, leasing the properties and managing revenues earned from them through farming and oil drilling, for example. Neglectful management over the years means that landowners or their descendants do not know how much money they have in their accounts, the total estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

Last month, attorneys for the plaintiffs harshly criticized a memorandum issued by Babbitt before he left office, giving the go-ahead to develop a plan to determine individual accounts through statistical sampling instead of using a more thorough account-by-account method.

Remple said sampling wouldn't work because many account documents have been destroyed. "You can't sample if you don't have the documents," he said. "It won't yield an accurate accounting as required by this court."

An Interior spokesperson dismissed the criticism, noting that Congress had directed Interior to explore the sampling idea and earmarked about $10 million for it in its fiscal 2001 appropriation.

"This is not some last-minute change of plan," Interior spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna said. "This is something that's been under consideration for quite some time. We feel some type of statistical sampling is the best way to go."

The Trust Asset and Accounting Management System, which Babbitt approved for deployment last year, is a key component of Interior's trust management reform efforts. It has also come under fire by the plaintiffs, who say it doesn't work and that the department has misled the court about its implementation problems.

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