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Know the West

BIA comes under fire - again

  In one of the largest class action suits ever filed against the federal government, 300,000 American Indians have demanded a full statement of their Individual Indian Money accounts that are managed, much like a bank, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"They have no idea how much has been collected from the companies that use our land," says John Echohawk, executive director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Native American Rights Fund, which helped file the lawsuit in June. "The BIA has spent more than 100 years mismanaging, diverting and losing money that belongs to Indians."

Scandal is hardly new to the beleaguered federal agency. In May, the General Accounting Office confirmed that the BIA cannot verify 32,900 transactions involving $2.4 billion in tribal trust funds. Even worse, these funds cannot be fully audited because of incomplete record-keeping. The separate individual money accounts, comprised mainly of rents and royalties for Indian-owned land, oil, gas and timber, are similarly disorganized. On top of bad BIA accounting, the class action suit alleges a host of misdeeds, including deliberate destruction of records, illegal use of funds and sloppy investing.

Congress recognized some of these problems when it passed the Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act in 1994. The act created a new office, the Special Trustee for American Indians, to oversee cleanup of the trust funds. The Clinton administration, in its 1997 budget, requested a $17.7 million increase for the Special Trustee. But by June 10, the date of the suit, the House had approved just $1 million, and the Senate had not acted. "We got tired of waiting," says Echohawk. "The court will order them to do it, and they will have to come up with the money."

*Jared Farmer