Monday, June 13, 2005

Cobell v. Norton is a powerfull resource on the net. It allows anyone to see a legislative bill as it goes through the 'sausage making' process.

One interesting provision in a bill (H.R. 2613: Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006) caught Porkoplis' eye.

In the version referred to Senate Committee after being received from House (H.R.2361.RFS) one will find the following text:


SEC. 118. The Secretary of the Interior may use discretionary funds to pay private attorneys fees and costs for employees and former employees of the Department of the Interior reasonably incurred in connection with Cobell v. Norton to the extent that such fees and costs are not paid by the Department of Justice or by private insurance. In no case shall the Secretary make payments under this section that would result in payment of hourly fees in excess of the highest hourly rate approved by the District Court for the District of Columbia for counsel in Cobell v. Norton.
In the version 'Reported in Senate' (H.R.2361.RS) the above text is 'Struck out'; i.e., removed. This may be related to contempt matters, but the provision is not specific.

Probably a good thing, since the proposed legislation looked as if private attorney fees were going to be paid to Interior officials associated with the Cobell v. Norton case.

Porkopolis' curioisity was stimulated at this point. What is Cobell v. Norton? Googling it results in quite a few hits.

Cobell stands for Eloise Cobell and Norton is Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior. Cobell v. Norton is a federal class action suit filed to force the Department of the Interior to accurately account for Indian land holdings and the revenues generated from them. It started out as Cobell v. Babbitt. Bruce Babbit was the Clinton era Secretary of the Interior.

Indian Trust - Cobell v. Norton is probably the best one stop resource for understanding this landmark case. This link is a recent official statement made before the House Committee on Resources on the history of the case from the government's perspective.

To say that the management of the Indian land holding trust is a royal mess is an understatment and will probably go down in the annals of bureaucratic mismanagment. Consider this from the statement given by James Cason Associate Deputy Secretary of the Interior to Congress in February of this year:

...Congress designated the Department of the Interior as the trustee for one of the most complex and diverse governmental land trust ever established. The Department manages approximately 56 million acres of land held in trust. Over ten million acres belong to individual Indians and nearly 46 million acres are held in trust for Indian Tribes. On these lands, Interior manages over 100,000 leases for individual Indians and Tribes. Leasing, use permits, land sale revenues, and interest all of which total approximately $205 million per year are collected for 245,000 open individual Indian money (IIM) accounts. About $414 million per year is collected in 1,400 tribal accounts for 300 Tribes. In addition, the Indian trust fund manages approximately $3.0 billion in tribal funds and $400 million in individual Indian funds. Because the Cobell case only involves IIM accounts, most of my testimony will focus on the issues related to the management of those

...In 1996, five IIM beneficiaries filed the Cobell v. Norton class action lawsuit alleging that the government had breached its fiduciary duty in managing the IIM accounts. In 1999, a Federal district court held, in a decision affirmed on appeal in 2001, that the government had breached its fiduciary obligations to plaintiffs. In the litigation, the plaintiffs have sought an accounting, rather than monetary damages, but their argument is that they are owed any money that the government collected but cannot prove was properly distributed to individual Indians since 1887, some of which the government cannot do because of the unavailability of trust records. Under the plaintiff’s theory, they are owed as much as the total amount collected since 1887 (which is estimated to be $13 billion), plus interest. They calculate the amount to be over $176 billion.

In September 2003, the district court ordered Interior to conduct a transaction-by-transaction accounting, back to 1887, of all of the IIM accounts that it manages or has ever managed and required that Interior substantially complete this accounting by the end of FY 2006. Interior estimates that complying with the court’s order would cost between $9 billion and $12 billion, and even then it would not be able to meet the court’s requirements or its aggressive timeline. The government appealed this order.
(ed. emphasis added)

We're talking about big time money here. That's $9 to $12 billion just to comply with the accounting ordered by the court and possibly $176 billion when all is said and done. Reading through some of the news accounts related with the case, is also disturbing to say the least. Take for example the one entitled 'An Ugly History' from which starts of as follows:
An investigation by has found that officials in the Bush administration had detailed knowledge of fraudulent practices that allowed energy companies to cheat Native American Indians out of tens of millions of dollars over dozens of years. These officials were aware that employees of the federal government were helping oil and gas companies underpay to operate on Indian lands in the state of New Mexico — and did nothing to stop it.

Regardless of the outcome, a lot of money is being spent on this issue; most of it stemming from mismanagement.


Post a Comment

<< Home