Native American trust funds. In 1887 the Dawes Act allotted individual Native Americans plots out of trust lands amounting to about 139 million acres. The federal government was to administer and manage these lands for the benefit of Native peoples. In 1889, however, lands not already allotted were made available to non-Native people. The trust lands rapidly shrank, profits from their sale and use were diverted, and the government’s accounting procedures were so bad it will never be known how much money was lost. In June 1996, a class action lawsuit was filed in DC federal district court with Judge Royce Lamberth presiding: Cobell v. Secretary of the Interior (Babbitt, Norton, Kempthorne) over the Department’s management of the trust known as the Individual Indian Money program or IIM.
The Cobell case spans both the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Both saw Interior Secretaries and others cited for contempt. Both saw government offices destroy relevant evidence. The government has yet to address seriously the two issues of the case, compensation and reform of the trust. Instead it has engaged in a stalling strategy which so enraged Judge Lambert that "intemperate" remarks he made in July 2005 led to his eventual replacement in July 2006. That same month Senator John McCain (R-AZ) proposed an $8 billion settlement. This is a far lower figure than what the government owes the trust but illustrates the reality that the government has no intention of paying fair compensation or even making a real effort to find out what such compensation would be. On March 1, 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales added insult to injury by suggesting an even lower all inclusive settlement number of $7 billion. The case drags on with the government trying to "right" one historic wrong by committing another.
One interesting aside is that as part of the Cobell case the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Office of the Special Trustee, the Office of Historical Trust Accounting, the Office of Hearing Appeals and the Office of the Solicitor all had their access to the internet pulled from 2001 to May 2008 by court order due to their mishandling of information. The current DC district court judge overseeing the case James Robertson of the DC district rescinded the order citing the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) which he said left no role for the courts in online security and information management. The Interior Department of which the BIA is part has received an F on FISMA’s annual report card for the past 2 years. It is amazing that the BIA and other offices over a period of 7 years could not resolve this issue and that it took a ruling that ignored the facts of the matter to reinstate their access.
On August 7, 2008, Judge Robertson awarded the native American plaintiffs $455 million a fraction of what even the government has offered them in the past, an inexplicably low figure given the value of the resources and the lengths of time involved. Robertson’s judgment seems rather a validation of the government’s policies of massive mismanagement, corruption, and failure to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities. Trust lands were never administered with their native owners in mind but as a cash cow for mining interests, oil companies, developers, and ranchers, everyone in fact but them. Apparently Judge Robertson thinks this was just fine.