A banker battles to hold the government accountable

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

BROWNING, Mont. - Until recently, Browning, a dusty settlement on the Blackfeet Indian reservation in northern Montana, was known more for its bar fights than its financial enterprise.

But thanks to the small town's banker, Elouise Cobell, Browning is becoming known for something else. This is where Cobell uncovered a financial mess whose magnitude may rival that of the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal.

Her gritty determination and eye for numbers have put her in the middle of a colossal battle with the federal government.

At stake are billions of dollars that miners, oil companies, farmers and ranchers pay to lease Indian land. That lease money goes to the Bureau of Indian affairs under the 1887 General Allotment Act, which made the bureau trustee of Indian lands. The agency is supposed to distribute the money to tribes and landowners, but in a huge number of cases, says Cobell, the money never makes it to the people.

The bureau admits its accounting systems are in disarray. Between 1972 and 1992, it lost track of about $2 billion belonging to Indian tribes alone.

This April, the Interior department offered to settle with tribes over the misplaced money, but it has said nothing about money the bureau has apparently also lost that belongs to individual Indians.

"This is our money. It came off our land," says Cobell. "Indians should really be getting radical and active about this."

In 1996, with help from the Boulder, Colo.-based Native American Rights Fund, Cobell sued the Interior department for mismanaging Indian money. The class action suit, filed on behalf of 300,000 Indian account holders, asks the department to put up-to-date and accurate accounting systems in place and repay all money missing from the Individual Indian Money accounts.

With financial support from the Northwest Area Foundation and the Lannan Foundation, Cobell and her lawyers have an army of Price-Waterhouse accountants rifling through over a century of Interior department documents. So far, the firm has gone through 55 million documents, according to lead counsel Dennis Gingold, an independent attorney working with the Native American Rights Fund legal team.

Gingold guesses $10 billion to $100 billion are missing. He's pushing for a trial date before the year 2000.

"We're not saying the money has been stolen. We're not saying the money has been lost," he says. "We're just saying wherever it is, it needs to be restated in the accounts."

We're working on it, says Interior department Deputy Solicitor Ed Cohen. "We're committed to doing that. We're in the process of getting the information into usable shape." But, he says, there is no way the department will have its paperwork ready before 2001.