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Hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee - Status of the Indian Trust Fund Lawsuit, Cobell V. Norton


Location: Washington, DC


February 16, 2005


Mr. Walden. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and again, thank you for holding this oversight hearing on this very difficult and costly issue.

Mr. Cason, thank you for your testimony and for your work on this, along with those inside the agency and out who collectively are trying to come to a fair and equitable solution to this problem.

It seems to me, and I am no accounting major, but this kind of the equivalent of the Boston Big Dig. It just goes on forever, costs a fortune, and it seems like you never get to the bottom of the accounting problem. This accounting problem goes back more than 100 years, right?

Mr. Cason. Yes.

Mr. Walden. It just seems to me at some point, we are going to spend more trying to dig up all these records or recreate them than perhaps the settlement cost would be. Is that reasonable, or--

Mr. Cason. Congressman, that will depend on what level of effort Congress ultimately authorizes through appropriations. So far on doing the accounting for tribes, we have spent about $20 to $30 million. So far on accounting for individuals, it is around $100 million. So we have had that level of effort so far.

Our request in 2006 appropriations is for $135 million to continue our work in historical accounting. If we embraced what the District Court told us to do, the price tag is somewhere, our estimate, $6 to $12 billion to do that.

Mr. Walden. Just to do the accounting?

Mr. Cason. Just to do the accounting. And the estimate of throughput, and throughput is a concept of if you have your checking account for ten years, all the credits and debits you have had in your account, that is throughput, the estimate of throughput is about $13 billion in the last 100 years. The current balance of the account is just over $400 million. So it won't be very long following the current course that we have now that the accounting cost will exceed the balance of the fund, and then it will be a matter of just how much level of effort we put into it before it is termed to be adequate.

Mr. Walden. Have you run a number, and maybe you said this earlier and I missed it, but the cost of the average claim, what they are owed, perhaps, versus what it costs you to get there? If you are an individual tribal member with a claim, what is that claim valued at, on average?

Mr. Cason. Congressman, we don't have an assessment of value of claims because what we are going through right now is the administrative process of conducting an historical accounting, and that is a process in which we assess the account, the activities in the account, and draw a conclusion about whether the account is accurately stated. And then after that, if there are errors in the account, at that point, you could make a determination of whether a claim was appropriate or not.

So the litigation principally is focused on the administrative process, the arriving at an accounting of our stewardship of Indian assets, and then after that is done, we can determine whether a claim is appropriate and how to address it.

Mr. Walden. Maybe you can't answer this question, but I have tracked this e-mail issue and the judge's decision clear into little old Lake View, Oregon, among other places, where BLM and the Forest Service cohabitate in the same building and yet they can't communicate, or couldn't for a while. Even though they were next door to each other, they had to get up and walk around and talk instead of e-mail.

Can you tell me what the logic of that was from the judge?

Mr. Cason. I can tell you what the court has suggested. Basically, what is at issue is a concern voiced by the plaintiffs to the court that our IT systems that contain individual Indian trust data are not secure. That is the issue. And the judge has agreed, and the remedy the judge imposed was to order the Department to disconnect any system in the Department of Interior that contained IITD, or Individual Indian Trust Data, from the Internet as the means of reducing the risk to that data that might be used for historical calculations.

Mr. Walden. How did that lead, then, to a complete shutdown of e-mail? Couldn't that be walled off pretty easily?

Mr. Cason. The problem that we had is imperfect information at the beginning, that when we initially got the order on December 5 of 2001, we didn't know exactly where all Indian data was in the Department.

Mr. Walden. I see.

Mr. Cason. And so we had to go through a process--we had to shut everything down to comply with the order, go figure out where all the information was, and then progressively petition the court to let certain systems up that didn't represent a risk.

Mr. Walden. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


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