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Oversight Hearing of House Committee on Resources U.S. House of Representatives: Status of the Indian Trust Fund Lawsuit, Cobell V. Norton

Location: Washington, DC


February 16, 2005


Mr. Pallone. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I just wanted to ask Mr. Cason--well, first, let me say that it continues to bother me, and I have to, before I ask my question, say that the idea that the Department continues to move forward with this BIA trust reform without really having any consent or consultation with Indian country, in my opinion, or any real input, in my opinion, from this committee is not--I don't appreciate that and I think it is an ongoing problem.

But more important is the fact that it just seems to me, when we look at the Federal budget, that in order to fund the Office of the Special Trustee, we are constantly offsetting that funding with cuts in other Indian accounts. I am not even going to ask you, because you will tell me that that is not the case, but it is clear to me from last year's budget as well as this year's budget that, for example, the BIA School Construction Fund is being cut in order to offset, in my opinion, the OST funding.

But what I wanted to ask, is the administration doing this, and are they increasing taking money away from these other existing Indian programs in order to force our hand or impose some kind of a settlement? I think that what is happening now is that the tribes are feeling very strongly that as long as you continue with your efforts in this reorganization, that less and less money is going to be available for other Indian accounts. I mean, is that some sort of concerted effort to tell us, impose a settlement, otherwise these funds are going to continue to be diverted? Just answer that, if you would.

Mr. Cason. Not at all.

Mr. Pallone. If that is not the case, I know you have given us some figures here, and I wasn't here before when you spoke, but have you indicated when this reorganization is likely to be completed or what the overall cost is going to be in the long run?

Mr. Cason. Congressman, it is substantially complete now. We are still in the process of hiring a few people to fully staff it. This is an issue where we actually agree with the plaintiffs in the Cobell lawsuit that the Department had not done a good enough job in managing the trust with people who were qualified to be trustees.

Mr. Pallone. About how much more do you think it is going to cost us, and when do you expect it to be done? Can you give us a date?

Mr. Cason. The reorganization stuff, as I said, is substantially done. To the extent of my knowledge, if anything, there are just small items that have to be done. We are hiring, in some cases, deputy agency superintendents for trust, in some cases--

Mr. Pallone. Another six months?

Mr. Cason. I don't know. The personnel process is one that it is hard to gauge when everything will be done because you gain people, you lose people through normal attrition--

Mr. Pallone. Well, give us a date. A year?

Mr. Cason. I don't know, Congressman.

Mr. Pallone. All right. What about--

Mr. Cason. It is an ongoing process.

Mr. Pallone. How much more is it going to cost us?

Mr. Cason. I think it is built into the Congressional budget, the 2006 budget right now. The staffing that is associated with it is relatively nominal. Out of an organization of 10,000 people, we are talking about a relative handful of people that would be placed in these new positions that haven't been there before. And all of it, the intent is for us to have people who are directly focused on how we manage the trust, to act as a trustee.

Mr. Pallone. I don't doubt that your intentions are proper, but my fear is that you run the risk of implementing this plan that could ultimately be rejected by the court and then you have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars. What is the answer to that? What happens?

Mr. Cason. Well, at this point, we have an ongoing dialogue with the court about how we resolve this issue, and we have been there in that dialogue for nine years. In the course of this, it has been in the District Court and the Court of Appeals several times--

Mr. Pallone. So you don't think there is a risk that ultimately you do all this and they just say, well, that is not acceptable, and then you wasted all this money?

Mr. Cason. I suppose that is possible, but I guess I don't envision the court really stepping in to say, you know, you shouldn't have any trust officers involved in this business. Having people who actually focus on managing this like a trust is important. So I guess I don't really envision that being an issue.

Mr. Pallone. Let me just ask one more question. I know cost is the fact you keep raising with this historical accounting, but if it wasn't for the cost, and I guess you can't really rule that out, but if it wasn't for the cost factor, would the Department be able to do an accurate historical accounting? I mean, are the documents destroyed? Are they there? If we just left out the cost for the time being, would you actually be able to do it, or the documents aren't there and are destroyed and you just couldn't do it?

Mr. Cason. Congressman, I think that depends on your expectations to answer, and what I mean by that is if your expectation is that we have every single document ever created to describe what we did in the trust since 1887, no, you couldn't. But if your purpose is to become much more informed about what the Department did as a trustee over this last 100 years, yes, we can.

What we have found so far in the accounting, and we have done accounts from 1914 forward, not a lot in the older ones, a lot of accounts in newer accounts, we found that generally we have somewhere between 85 and 95 percent of the documents for credits and debits. There are missing documents, there is no question about that. There is missing information. We wish we had everything. We don't. But we think that we can become substantially informed about the activities in these accounts and the status of the balances in these accounts with the records we do have. But it is very expensive and it is very time consuming to do.

We have been at this for nine years, and at the end of nine years, Indian beneficiaries don't have anything different than they had nine years ago other than we are producing pieces of paper that says, here is what happened in your account. And what we would like to see if we could do with the help of this committee and Senate Indian Affairs is see if there is another pathway we can pursue to find a settlement to this that is fair and equitable to everyone where Indian beneficiaries actually end up benefiting from the process instead of lawyers and accountants.

Mr. Pallone. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


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