Government will head back to court over trust accounts

By Mary Clare Jalonick
Washington, D.C. (AP)3-08

A federal judge said he wants to resolve a 12-year lawsuit over government mismanagement of American Indian lands this June.

In a January decision, U.S. District Judge James Robertson said Interior Department accounting for billions of dollars owed to America Indian landholders has been “unreasonably delayed” and is ultimately impossible.

At the same time, Robertson said the overall task is not hopeless, and he held a status hearing to determine what happens next. At the hearing, he set out a schedule for the next few months that will allow both sides to argue how the trial should proceed.

The June trial “is meant to bring this matter to a conclusion,” Robertson said. “It is time to bring this matter to a close with a decision of one kind or another.”

The suit, first filed in 1996 by Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell, claims the government has mismanaged more than $100 billion in royalties held in trust from American Indian lands dating back to 1887.

Lawyers for the government disagreed with Robertson at the hearing, saying the Interior Department’s complicated methods of accounting are not impossible. Those efforts have already cost the government $127 million.

Lawyers for the American Indian plaintiffs said they were pleased with the prospect of the new trial and they hope it will determine the value of the trust accounts.

“This case can be resolved fairly and expeditiously,” said Dennis Gingold, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney.

Robertson also hinted that he may be ready to allow the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reconnect to the Internet. The bureau is under court orders to disconnect its computers from the Internet to secure American Indian trust data.

He asked the plaintiffs to submit a reasoning for the disconnect by March 26. Unless the plaintiffs make a sufficient case, he said, “I am frankly inclined to let them turn the switches back on.”

The government proposed paying $7 billion partly to settle the Cobell lawsuit in March 2007, but that was rejected by the plaintiffs, who estimate the government’s liability could exceed $100 billion.

The lawsuit deals with individuals’ lands. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.

In the January decision, Robertson also blamed Congress for the lack of money appropriated for the cause, citing the “tension between the expense of an adequate accounting and congressional unwillingness to fund such an enterprise.”