Indian Trust Funds Suit Returns to Court

The Indian Trust Funds lawsuit is back in court. Plaintiffs say the federal government has mishandled a trust that is supposed to manage natural-resources leases and other Indian assets. The government says it is offering a fair accounting, even though it doesn't have all of the documents.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Hey, the federal government and Indian tribes are back in court today. This is the latest event in a case that's gone on for a decade. Indian leaders contend the government has mishandled a trust that is supposed to manage leases for national resources and other Indian assets.

The Indians also accused the government of underestimating the amount of money owed to the tribes, as NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS: First things first. Do you know what the Indian trust fund is? For more than a century, the U.S. government has managed in trust the money that came from leasing Indian lands, for the goods on them and within them - oil and gas and minerals, timber and grazing. But in all those years, the government never did what every trustee must do by law, account for the money it took in and managed on behalf of Native Americans. A group of Indian tribe members sued to force the government to do so. That was 11 years ago.

Last year, an appeals court appointed a new judge in the case. He is bringing the parties into court today.

Indian law expert Eric Eberhard says he is confident Judge James Robertson can resolve this case. Well, kind of.

Mr. ERIC EBERHARD (Attorney): I have a lot of confidence that if this case can be resolved judicially, he may be able to do it.

LEWIS: If, may - that doesn't sound like confidence. Here's why. Eberhard has watched the Indian trust fund case from the get-go. He was staff director for the Senator Indian Affairs Committee under Senator John McCain from 1989 to 1995. He doesn't really think the courts can settle the dispute. That's because, Eberhard says, the two sides in this case are so polarized they might as well be from different planets.

Mr. EBERHARD: The parties have not even been able to agree on how many accounts there are, much less how the accounting ought to go forward.

LEWIS: Take the question, can the government do a fair accounting of the trust? Here's Eloise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the Indian trust fund case.

Ms. ELOISE COBELL (Plaintiff): They can't do an accounting. Everyone knows that. There's too many records that are destroyed.

Mr. ROSS SWIMMER (Office of the Special Trustee for Indian Affairs): I think that that theory was debunked several years ago.

LEWIS: That's Ross Swimmer, who oversees the trust for the government's Office of the Special Trustee for Indian Affairs. He says the government has some four million pages of documents, and that's sufficient.

Mr. SWIMMER: We feel confident that the records do exist that reflect the information in the individual beneficiary's account.

LEWIS: Not every account, but enough to conduct a fair accounting, Swimmer says.

But Cobell says there is no way the government is being fair, based on the way it's counting which beneficiaries need to be included in the accounting and which do not.

Ms. COBELL: They want to exclude, you know, the vast majority of the account holders, and no way can that ever happen. We need fair justice.

LEWIS: Eric Eberhard has a hard time seeing fairness coming out of the courts, not because the courts aren't fair, but because of how the judicial process works - with appeal after appeal after appeal.

Mr. EBERHARD: It could make Charles Dickens' "Bleak House" look like a high-speed judicial process. It could go for years and years and years.

LEWIS: But wait, it's done that already.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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