Norton embraces trust collaboration

Like many politicians with numerous speaking engagements, Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton's testimony often sounds familiar. So even the slightest softening in tone stands out.

While continuing to support a new Bureau of Indian Trust Asset Management (BITAM), Norton has recently begun emphasizing the need for collaboration over any particular plan.

"We want to work with the tribes to see that whatever proposal we come out with is one that has their support and that they're comfortable with," she testified at a Feb. 27 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee. "I don't want to foreclose and say this is the only way to go because I think this is a good proposal."

She proposed BITAM in November 2001 as a way to improve the management of funds held in trust for American Indians. The proposal drew criticism almost from its inception, however, from some quarters on Capitol Hill and some American Indian tribes.

"I chose [to establish a new office] because it consolidates trust asset management, establishes a clearly focused organization, provides additional senior management attention to this high priority program and retains the program within the department to facilitate coordination with the Native American community," Norton testified at a Feb. 6 hearing before the House Resources Committee.

At the time, Norton strongly defended the plan despite complaints from Democratic members.

As a result of treaties conducted in the 19th century, Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) holds about 11 million acres in trust or restricted status for individual American Indians, and nearly 45 million for tribes.

A group of American Indians filed a class-action lawsuit in 1996 alleging that mismanagement has made it impossible for landowners and their descendants to determine their account balances. The plaintiffs estimate as much as $10 billion in lost or missing funds.

"I really don't believe creating a new agency for these trust accounts is an answer," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said at the hearing, calling Norton's approach patronizing.

Tribal leaders across the board have opposed stripping BIA of its trust fund duties. The proposed reorganization is alarming because tribes find it difficult, if not impossible, to access programs outside BIA, said Fred Matt, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, at the House Resources Committee hearing.

Since the BITAM proposal was introduced, Interior has hosted a series of meetings with tribal leaders to discuss the issue.

EDS — hired to assess Interior's trust reform — will evaluate a number of suggestions from the tribes to determine the best solution, Norton said at the hearing. "We're certainly open to looking at other ways," she said.

Meanwhile, the agency issued a request for proposals Feb. 21 for the development and implementation of a plan to conduct a historical accounting of individual American Indian trust accounts (see box). Vendors had until March 8 to respond.

The RFP came the same day Norton's contempt trial ended in U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's court. Lamberth has presided over the class-action lawsuit since it was filed almost six years ago.

In 1999, he directed Interior to initiate a historical accounting project. Norton and BIA director Neal McCaleb later faced five contempt charges that included failure to comply with that order.

In July 2001, Norton established the Office of Historical Trust Accounting to take charge of the matter. OHTA, which issued the RFP, also has released a "Blueprint for Developing the Comprehensive Historical Accounting Plan for Individual Indian Money Accounts" and a "Report Identifying Preliminary Work for the Historical Accounting." The office is also working on a plan to present to Congress for approval and long-term funding.

Interior requested a $9 million increase for accounting in its budget for fiscal 2003, but a full reconciliation is likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Norton testified at the Feb. 6 hearing.

"I do know [of] situations where the documents that existed no longer exist," she further testified Feb. 13 at her trial.

Much of Interior remains off-line since Lamberth ordered the department to disconnect from the Internet in December after a computer security firm broke into its systems.

However, the Bureau of Land Management's site (www.blm.gov) and the National Park Service site (www.nps.gov) are now up and running.

***

At a Glance

Request for proposals for a historical accounting plan

The Interior Department has issued a request for proposals for a plan to conduct a historical accounting of individual American Indian trust accounts — many of which date from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Trust records have been lost over time, Interior Secretary Gale Norton has testified.

The contract, projected to last three years, calls for:

* Long-term support, possibly for more than the contract term.

* Analysis, including the review of historical legal and accounting documents.

* Expert advice from a contractor experienced in handling a large commercial trust operation.

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