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Gov. Seeks Clarity on Indian Trusts

By David Miles
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— Gov. Bill Richardson is drafting a letter urging U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton to enhance the security of hundreds of thousands of American Indian trust accounts.
    The Department of Interior since April has been involved in mediation aimed at resolving an 8-year-old lawsuit filed by Indian plaintiffs seeking a full accounting and payment of money that should be in the accounts.
    "Governor Richardson remains deeply concerned with the Department of Interior's failure to adequately protect the security of Indian trust accounts," Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said last week.
    A federal judge presiding over the lawsuit in March ordered the Interior Department to temporarily shut down many of its Web sites, including its Internet reporting system for federal mineral revenue payments to states.
    That move resulted in the delayed payment of millions of dollars in mineral revenue payments to New Mexico, Gallegos said.
    Richardson's letter will urge Norton to address the mismanagement of Indian trust accounts and develop a contingency plan to resolve any future problems, such as delayed mineral payments, Gallegos said.
    Dan DuBray, a spokesman for the Interior Department, said the agency wants to settle the federal lawsuit and has devoted substantial sums of money and manpower to fix any accounting problems with the trust accounts.
    "The department has taken extraordinary steps, in consultation with Indian country, to improve its trust management function," DuBray said.
    But Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and a Blackfeet banker from Montana, said the Interior Department is using mediation to stall the case. Cobell said she wants the Department of Interior to be placed into receivership and put under control of the federal courts.
    "I'm tired of being ignored by the Bush administration," Cobell said.
    Cobell recently met in Santa Fe with state Secretary of Indian Affairs Benny Shendo Jr. and Hillary Thompkins, Richardson's deputy chief counsel, in hopes of winning the governor's support for her case.
    The trust accounts stem from an 1887 federal law to divide reservations into allotments for individual Indians. The federal government holds the land in trust for Indians and leases much of the land for grazing, logging, mining, oil and gas drilling and other purposes.
    DuBray said there are roughly 200,000 trust accounts, but Cobell said she is among more than 500,000 plaintiffs in the case.
    Cobell estimates that as much as $176 billion may be owed to Indians. DuBray said his agency has not made an estimate.