- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001

The federal government has failed to follow the orders of a U.S. District Court judge who twice has called for a comprehensive accounting of missing trust funds kept by the Interior Department for more than 300,000 American Indians.
Court-appointed monitor Joseph S. Kieffer III said in a 48-page report this week to U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth that neither Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton nor her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, has made any substantial effort to order the overhaul of a trust account system that has been in disarray for decades — despite the judge's orders to do so.
"As of the date of this report and over one and a half years following the court's decision directing the Interior defendants to conduct an historical accounting, the historical accounting project remains undefined, understaffed and, with few exceptions, at the starting gate," said Mr. Kieffer.
Beginning in 1999, Judge Lamberth ordered Interior Department officials on two occasions to account for funds they held in trust for more than 300,000 Indians, saying records provided to the court showed that the money was so badly mishandled that the government had no idea how much was missing or where it could be found.
The judge, in a strongly worded 142-page ruling, ordered the Interior Department to come up with an accurate accounting of the trust fund accounts, to provide for the retention of trust fund documents and to provide adequate staffing for trust fund management functions.
He promised to personally oversee efforts by the government to fix the failed system.
In 1999, Judge Lamberth also held Mr. Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin in contempt for failing to turn over records in a lawsuit filed by the Indians and ruled that the government had to pay $625,000 for their inaction.
The judge issued the contempt citations after Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Rubin refused to produce trust-fund records, canceled checks and other documents demanded by the court.
The Interior Department, which manages trust-fund accounts involving settlements, royalties and payments to about 300,000 Indians and 2,000 tribal accounts, has given several reasons why the trust accounts are unavailable — including that some have been so tainted with rodent droppings that handling them would be hazardous.
In his report, Mr. Kieffer said Mrs. Norton and Mr. Babbitt failed to take the necessary steps to overhaul the failed system, adding that both sought short-term remedies instead of seeking permanent solutions to the long-standing problem.
Mr. Kieffer also said Mr. Babbitt and other high-ranking Interior Department officials chose to review only a statistical sampling of the accounts — and did so before conducting meetings last year during which hundreds of Indians across the country were asked for their opinions about what kind of accounting approach was best.
Mr. Kieffer described the process and the meetings as a sham to make it appear that department officials were addressing the problem. He said Indians who attended the meeting "didn't realize their response had already fallen on deaf ears before it was ever recorded."
Interior Department officials declined to comment on the report, saying they had not had time to review the document.

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