- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

Just about as large an accounting scandal as that plaguing Arthur Andersen and the beleaguered Enron is one that has been hanging around for decades and is the direct result of government incompetence.

What's more, it may never be settled. Even the courts can't seem to find a way to assure Native Americans that billions of dollars in land-use fees owed them will ever be distributed. The money is due them for grazing, timber cutting and the extraction of oil, gas and other minerals on their land. The mess stems from bureaucratic intransigence of historic proportions by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees it, reaching back almost to the creation of the bureau, an agency whose early years were marred by corruption.

Andersen itself was paid $20 million to try to straighten out the system and clearly didn't, which comes as no surprise. Price Waterhouse, another accounting giant, had joined the General Accounting Office and others in issuing reports urging reforms in the 1980s, all to no avail.

So infuriated has one federal judge become over the lack of government response during the six years since frustrated Indians filed a class-action suit, he held both the Clinton Interior and Treasury secretaries in contempt of court, and current Interior Secretary Gale Norton and more than three-dozen others in her department now face similar citations from District Judge Royce Lamberth.

The class-action suit seeks to win justification, and thus billions in owed payments for 300,000 individual accounts held by the bureau. Like nearly every other dealing Native Americans have had with the government, they have failed to achieve any satisfaction. Indians contend that not one single account of those represented in the suit has been accurately balanced. Does the expression "flimflam" ring a bell? It certainly does with Mr. Lamberth, who has been struggling with misleading government lawyers, shredded documents and a host of other government shenanigans, including deleted e-mails. Last December, he became so upset over the lack of security on Web sites linked to the trust accounts that he ordered them shut down. In a classic bit of bureaucratic fumbling, Interior shut down all its Web sites, including those for the national parks, causing a disruption in vacation plans for thousands of Americans.

The amount of land here is sizable, 57 million acres, 47 million of which is held in trust for the tribes. Leases for use of the land are signed with the bureau and pay the Office of Trust Fund Management, which is supposed to administer the accounts. Record-keeping in any orderly fashion has been practically nonexistent over the years, and many of the documents have been damaged or destroyed. Also, there has been a major problem as original account holders (land owners) died and their holdings have been spread among heirs.

Congress has tried to fix the problem on occasion without much more success. The latest plan offered by a group of Western senators, including Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Arizona Republican John McCain, would create a new position at Interior to oversee trust management and facilitate the handling of funds by the tribes themselves. At the same time, Norton wants to set up a new bureau in the department to deal exclusively with the trust-management problem. Those supporting the class-action suit for some strange reason aren't keen about new government agencies coming into the picture and want Mr. Lamberth to appoint an independent receiver to straighten out the individual accounts.

This entire affair has dragged on to the point of insanity. Obviously, a government agency or agencies that can't be trusted to manage the affairs of its constituents in better fashion needs to be severely reorganized or abolished altogether.

The government's continuing callous disregard of the rights of Native Americans is not only a national disgrace, it is criminal. The Enron scandal is just a blip on the screen of corporate sleaziness. The mishandling of the Indian accounts is far more serious in what it says about our system of government no matter how unsexy it may be to the press.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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