Indian trust reform debate continues

Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton has killed her proposal to consolidate trust fund duties into a new agency and instead will support an option advanced by American Indians, according to official testimony on Capitol Hill.

Already, "a true flower of truth has blossomed from the bud of hope," said Neal McCaleb, Interior's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

Sound more poetic than political? It is simply language befitting the "apparent love fest" that was a June 26 oversight hearing, as Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, repeatedly called the gathering.

"From the vantage point of this committee, you are making history," Inouye said of the ongoing dialogue between the department and tribal leaders. But they have not fully emerged from the morass of their thorny past.

An Interior and tribal leader task force is seeking common ground as it hashes out a final plan for change. Both sides agree that Congress should charter a commission to oversee the government's trust reform, a major undertaking that includes fixing a computer system with known security flaws. They disagree, however, on what powers the group should have.

"Interior would prefer that it be advisory in nature rather than regulatory or prescriptive," Tex Hall, tribal co-chairman of the task force, said in testimony. "The tribal leadership on the task force believes that Congress should create an independent entity that is capable of exercising regulatory and oversight authority."

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. Norton has received approval from Congress to reprogram funds to begin implementing TrustNet, a new secure network for Indian trust data, according to her ninth status report to the court.

But those and other efforts have failed to turn the tide of resentment among American Indians.

"You cannot expect that the fox can oversee the hen house," said Sue Masten, the task force's tribal co- chairwoman.

Meanwhile, a day after the hearing, plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth to disconnect the Office of Surface Mining from the Internet for the second time.

The OSM Web site went back online nearly two months after the departmentwide shutdown in December 2001 following reported security breaches. But that was then.

The defendants "again have placed individual Indian trust data at imminent risk of loss, corruption, deletion or unlawful manipulation because OSM systems are connected to the Internet and security is inadequate," attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in an introduction to an emergency motion filed June 27.

OSM officials declined to comment.

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