Interior budget limits Indian accounting

Interior Department

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The Interior Appropriations bill signed into law by President Bush yesterday limits accounting of American Indian trust funds in 2004 and gives Congress time to amend trust management legislation.

Despite the Sept. 25 ruling in the Cobell v. Norton class-action lawsuit that ordered the Interior Department to conduct a full cost accounting of all assets held in Indian trust funds since 1887, language in the appropriations bill effectively releases Interior from that obligation.

Due to the ongoing legal proceedings — now in their seventh year — many computer systems within Interior remain shut down, including the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs network. Through orders from the court, Interior has had to recertify many of its systems by showing proof that those systems do not have access to data concerning the trust funds.

According to the appropriations bill, Interior will not be required to commence or continue historical accounting activities until Congress amends the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 to delineate Interior's specific accounting obligations, or until Dec. 31, 2004.

The bill also states, "The managers reject the notion that in passing the American Indian Trust [Fund] Management Reform Act of 1994 Congress had any intention of ordering an accounting on the scale of that which has now been ordered by the court."

In his September ruling, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered that Interior complete the full accounting by 2007. According to estimates in the appropriations bill, that activity would cost between "$6 billion and $12 billion over this court-mandated time frame."

The appropriations bill limits funding for historical accounting to $45 million, and the government is expected to appeal the court's decision. According to the bill's language, "Indian country would be better served by a settlement of this litigation than the expenditure of billions of dollars on an accounting."

In other technology matters within the appropriations bill, funding for the Geospatial One-Stop initiative was cut by $1.5 million, while the national map project was cut by $625,000.

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