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Know the West

Missing Interior money: Piles or pennies?

  American Indians who claim the federal government owes them billions of dollars are crying foul over a recently released report. In 1996, Indians across the country filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging the Interior Department mismanaged billions of dollars in royalties from oil and gas production, timber-harvesting and grazing on Indian land (HCN, 2/4/02: Indian trust is anything but).

To check the accuracy of its books, Interior commissioned a $20 million study, which traced the history of the trust accounts of four individuals. The report found only a single mistake by the Interior Department between 1915 and 1999, and calculated that the department owed the four American Indians $61.

Attorney Keith Harper of the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund calls the study “wholly invalid,” and says the accountants did not verify the accuracy of the transactions.

Interior spokesman Dan DuBray questions why, then, plaintiffs fought to keep the report secret – it was released in March after having been kept under seal for more than a year. “It’s odd that a report that folks worked so hard to keep under wraps is now somehow all fraudulent and full of holes,” he says.

Harper says the report was designed to win the Interior Department sympathy in Congress. “They know they’re losing in court, so their only hope is to motivate their friends on the Hill to undermine this (lawsuit) through congressional legislation.”

In January, Interior proposed a $335 million study to look into the accounts of 260,000 individual Indians, but Congress is questioning the expense. The case heads back to court May 5.