Interior challenges critical trust report

The Interior Department has asked a federal judge to reject a court monitor's disparaging 86-page report regarding the Indian trust fund controversy.

"The Interior defendants strongly object to the...report in its entirety and deny all of its substantive allegations," Interior officials said in a May 16 response to the document. "The report is, in all respects, improper."

In his seventh report to U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, Court Monitor Joseph Kieffer III wrote that Interior Secretary Gale Norton hasn't given Special Trustee for American Indians Thomas Slonaker the support he needs to fulfill his oversight duties mandated by a 1994 law. Slonaker's duty is to fix the trust system, including a computer program with known security flaws.

The focus of the report isn't "the progress of trust reform, but unsubstantiated theories and opinions of the court monitor regarding the secretary's management and supervision of officials appointed by the president to assist her in fulfilling her duties," the Interior response said.

In a May 7 letter, Justice Department attorney Sandra Spooner asked Kieffer to edit his findings, but Kieffer declined. "The seventh report will stand as it was written," he said in a May 13 letter, adding that Norton's attorneys could warrant censure for their conduct. The court must "correct this historical breach of trust," Kieffer concluded in his report. Interior has held American Indian-owned lands in trust for more than 100 years, leasing the properties and processing revenue earned from farming and drilling. A group of beneficiaries filed a class action lawsuit in 1996, claiming that poor bookkeeping has prevented landowners and their descendants from determining their account balances. They estimate that as much as $10 billion is lost or missing. The plaintiffs have endorsed Kieffer's report.

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