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No more delays; settle Indian case
A century of incompetence and bureaucratic racism in the handling of Indian trust accounts by the U.S. government is compounded by efforts to stall the settlement of a decade-old lawsuit.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne brought a refreshing commitment to his new job to end this shame, but, in another delay, the former Idaho governor joined with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to get all of August to study settlement language in Senate Bill 1489. After the congressional recess, two Republican senators can offer decisive help to stay focused on an equitable solution. Sen. John McCain of Arizona is chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, and Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana heads the Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on Interior. Both have indicated a desire to end this mess.
Spectacular sums are at stake with the failure of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Treasury Department to manage and account for billions of dollars of lease and royalty receipts collected on reservation lands, especially oil and gas leases.
Two years ago, a special master in the case brought by Elouise Cobell resigned in frustration because of the Bush administration's withholding of information. For the past 10 years, a conservative, Reagan-appointed federal judge sputtered with outrage about what the lawsuit revealed. The government successfully petitioned to have him reassigned.
Shameful government behavior crosses party lines. Officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations have been cited for contempt. In addition to a century of botched record keeping, the federal government was caught destroying records.
The recent involvement of the Office of Financial Management might suggest real dollar figures are being crunched. Settlement figures that once topped $25 billion now start down around $8 billion to stir action.
The government cannot be allowed to escape this debacle on the cheap and lump together old grievances. This is about individuals, not tribes, cheated by officials with a fiduciary duty to act on their behalf.
Settle this travesty, write big checks, and do it with the humility of a penitent making amends.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company