A Quaker Lobby in the Public Interest
Cobell: A Legislative and Judicial UpdateBills S. 1439, sponsored by Sens. McCain (AZ) and Dorgan (ND), and HR. 4322, sponsored by Rep. Pombo (CA) and Rahall (WV), are designed to reform the trust management system and financially settle past accounting discrepancies and trust mismanagement by the Department of Interior.
On March 1, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) and the House Resources Committee held a rare joint oversight hearing to put all the key lawmakers and involved parties in the hearing room at the same time. SCIA held another hearing on the legislation in late March.
Despite the efforts of lawmakers to examine the trust fund mess and propose the needed legislative changes, disagreement over the dollar figure that would represent a fair financial settlement for individual Indian account holders continues to present a barrier to finalizing the bills and passing the legislation. Department of Interior officials say their accounting has found little error in Interior’s management of leases, natural resources, and profits from land belonging to individual Indians. Interior officials believe the amount owed to Indian plaintiffs is little more than $500 million and they often argue for less than that.
The 500,000 individual Indian plaintiffs who are suing the federal government for a full accounting of their funds, a service they have never received in the 119 years of federal management of their land, have won many court victories and have exposed the depth of financial and resource mismanagement by the federal government. Interior’s accounting only takes its findings from a small sample set and officials acknowledge that they cannot fulfill the request for a proper due to the destruction (sometimes purposeful) and misplacement of the necessary financial documents. When the plaintiffs add compound interest (as ordered by the judge in the case) to the amount of money Interior can prove that the federal government paid out the figure for settlement runs into the tens-hundreds of billions of dollars.
The plaintiffs from across Indian Country (who originally proposed a sum of $27.5 billion) are probably willing to settle with the federal government for $9-$14 billion because of the intransigence of Interior and the administration.
The decade old Cobell v. Norton court case continues as legislators work to overcome the problems with trust settlement. On April 11th the DC Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on the Justice Department’s attempt to remove the Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who’s overseen the case from its inception, from the Cobell litigation. Justice claims that Lamberth’s scathing statements about the Department of Interior’s management of Indian assets in court decisions show that he can no longer judge impartially.
In another context, speaking of immigrants Rev. Jose Hoyos made a profound statement relevant here. “Our laws have moral consequences, and we all called to mend the broken system in a way that is just.”
For more information read an editorial by lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell