Indian Funds Must Be Accounted For

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Fri Feb 23 10:14:38 MST 2001

Filed at 11:51 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The federal government must fix problems with a
multibillion dollar system of accounts for American Indians and give the
Indians an accounting of how much money they should have, a federal appeals
court ruled Friday.

The ruling is another court victory for more than 300,000 Indians who are
seeking more than $10 billion they say they lost through more than a century
of government mismanagement of money earned from usage of Indian lands.

The three-judge panel unanimously upheld the 1999 ruling by U.S. District
Judge Royce Lamberth, who called mismanagement of the accounts ``fiscal and
governmental irresponsibility in its purest form.'' He ordered officials to
report every three months on their progress in fixing the accounting system.

Justice Department lawyers had challenged Lamberth's ruling, saying he
didn't have the power to order the government to make specific reforms or to
provide a full accounting of how much money the Indians should have. But the
judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected
all the government's arguments.

Judge David Sentelle, writing for the panel, said that the Interior and
Treasury departments had clearly violated their duties to the Indians.
Lamberth was correct to oversee reforms because previous efforts had been
``a day late and a dollar short,'' Sentelle wrote.

The accounts hold proceeds from oil drilling, timber cutting, grazing and
other uses of Indians' land. About $500 million passes through the system
each year. All sides agree that the accounts have been mismanaged since they
were created in 1887, with money being lost, stolen, not collected or spent
on other federal programs.

Record-keeping has been so poor that the government cannot say how many
accounts there should be. Lawyers for the Indians say there should be about
500,000, but government officials put the number at around 300,000.

Lamberth has not set a date for hearings on how the accounting should be
performed and how much the Indians are owed.

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