Being a winner on the big game board of politics sometimes takes more than an enthusiastic roll of the dice. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton learned this recently by landing on the "Bureaucrat Go to Jail" space when U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth scheduled civil contempt-of-court proceedings against her and other officials who have handled the looted Indian trust fund.
Clearly annoyed and frustrated by the government's recent moves, Lamberth wrote that Norton and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb "failed to comply" with court orders and provided "false and misleading" information about their efforts to correct the trust-fund system. The judge also testily questioned Norton's basic knowledge of the fund.
But none of this information and judicial jousting comes as a shock to the 300,000 American Indians affected by the mismanagement of money generated from their lands (see "Total Lack of Trust," Sept. 17). For them, Norton is just another in a long line of bureaucrats who have promised to make the badly abused trust fund their top priority only to back away from reform or even account for the tens of billions of dollars missing from it.
Recall that this fund was put in place more than 100 years ago under the General Allotment Act of 1887, which divided more than 11 million acres of land among the individual American Indians. Monies generated from the leasing of oil, mineral, timber or grazing rights on their lands were supposed to be placed in the trust fund then paid out to the respective Indian owners. Though the monies were paid to the government, the funds never reached the Indians.
The agencies responsible for the trust fund include the U.S. departments of Interior and Treasury, which for decades spent tens of millions of dollars attempting to account for the stolen funds only to claim that even this could not be done until the accounting system was restructured.
Norton recently announced the creation of the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM), to be headed by Ross Swimmer, who was head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) during the Reagan administration. Many familiar with the Indian trust fund tell INSIGHT that this is the secretary's latest attempt to stave off the contempt charges and keep details of this century-old scandal under wraps just a little longer.
In fact, it was just three months ago that Norton claimed Interior's inability to account for the missing funds was due to poorly implemented information systems. She said the Trust Asset Accounting Management System (TAAMS) would, when fully implemented, correct many of the problems. The $40 million TAAMS computer system still is not working. And critics say Norton apparently has moved a few more spaces into the swamp by creating BITAM and finding a Reagan-era patsy to front it.
Washington lawyer Dennis Gingold, the lead attorney on a class-action lawsuit filed by Eloise Cobell and four other American Indians, laughs at Norton's effort to deal with the problem by adding to the bureaucracy. He tells INSIGHT, "You expect them to make big mistakes on substantive issues because they know nothing of trust matters, but you wouldn't expect them to make mistakes on political issues. Yet here they go again."
Gingold explains, "What this `restructuring' means is that if the secretary pulls this off, and I don't believe she will, the next interior secretary will start from scratch because Norton obviously has no intention of doing anything during this administration. The people who created this restructuring have no background in trust management, and no intelligent thought process has gone into it. I've said it over and over again: This is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." In fact, according to Gingold, naming Swimmer to head the new bureaucracy only adds insult to injury for his Indian clients.
"Swimmer" Gingold continues, "apparently was involved with one of the big Cherokee Nation corporations that went into the tank because he made bad loans to various people from that corporation and, as a result, they couldn't repay loans to another bank. …