Judge rules on Indian money mess

  A federal judge says he'll personally oversee the Interior Department's effort to untangle a mess of mismanaged Indian trust money.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's decision settled the first half of a class-action lawsuit, led by banker Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet tribe. She and others charged the federal government with losing track of billions owed to Native Americans from farming, ranching, mining, and logging leases on Indian lands (HCN, 3/15/99).

In his ruling Dec. 21, Lamberth ordered the government to report to him every three months on its progress in fixing the accounting system. The judge lambasted the U.S. government for its "long and sorry history" of mismanaging Indian money, but concluded, "The court has given the defendant one last opportunity to carry through on their promises."

Nonetheless, the Justice Department appealed the ruling Jan. 3, arguing that the judge's supervision could hamper Interior's ongoing efforts to clean up Indian trust accounts. To ensure better supervision, the Bureau of Indian Affairs says it's moving its computer-systems management office from Albuquerque, N.M., to a suburb of Washington, D.C. Last summer, the department unveiled a new software program designed to end its sloppy accounting.

No one is certain, however, that the changes are enough. The General Accounting Office reported in June 1999 that the computer program was a waste of money; last May, the U.S. Treasury Department admitted to shredding 162 boxes of documents possibly related to the lawsuit.

Says Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund, "The appeal is just a continuation of the notion that they can do anything they see fit on tribal issues."

*Robyn Morrison

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