- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

The Interior Department announced changes at the Bureau of Indian Affairs yesterday to help improve its management of American Indian assets.
The shake-up is part of a comprehensive strategy for fixing problems that have plagued BIA's management of oil, gas and grazing royalties for Indian lands. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth demanded the changes in September when he held Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb in contempt of court for failing to solve the problems.
Mr. McCaleb said the largely bureaucratic changes were one part of what the judge requested. The department also is working on standards for accounting for the Indian money. The new framework is "an essential element to build our strategic plan on."
The complete strategy is due to Judge Lamberth by Jan. 6.
For nearly a year, Mr. McCaleb and other department officials met with tribal leaders, negotiating the best way to improve the department's management of the Indians' money. The department's first plan, released without consultation with tribes, was opposed by tribal leaders.
Subsequent negotiations broke down when the department refused to give in to tribes' demands that a panel of financial specialists and Indian representatives have the power to investigate department practices and sanction the interior secretary for mismanaging money.
But Mr. McCaleb said the 45 meetings held around the country produced consensus on what actions were needed. That agreement was included in the plan released yesterday.
A primary feature is the addition of about 75 trust officers on or near Indian reservations who will act as a sort of customer-service representative to help answer questions from Indians about proceeds from their land.
"We're going to give the beneficiaries the ability to walk in and not get shuffled around," said Diane Irwin, acting special trustee in charge of managing the Indian royalties.
A rating system will be adopted to evaluate how trust offices are doing their jobs, and clear lines of authority will be drawn for Bureau of Indian Affairs officials. Two new deputy assistant secretaries will be appointed one for information resources management and another for economic development, a pet project for Mr. McCaleb, who said it could solve the "economic malaise in Indian country."
Congressional appropriators must approve the restructuring before it can take effect. Implementing the changes is expected to cost $5 million.
The federal government manages 56 million acres of land on behalf of 315 tribes and more than 300,000 Indians nationwide.
Royalties from the lands generate more than $1 billion annually.
In 1996, a group of Indians sued the Interior Department, claiming government mismanagement and malfeasance for more than a century had cost Indian landowners at least $10 billion.
Judge Lamberth found Mrs. Norton and Mr. McCaleb in contempt of court in September for not complying with his order to account for money that had passed through the accounts and to fix the management problems.

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