Overdue Debt to Indians

Accounting boondoggles are not limited to the private sector. Just consider the federal government's Indian Trust Fund. It was set up 115 years ago to ensure that native Americans were paid for the use of their lands by miners, loggers, and ranchers.

Six years ago, a lawsuit was launched to force a clear accounting of that fund, which was notorious for bungled recordkeeping. Estimates on how much money is owed to Indian account-holders range from more than $10 billion (the plaintiffs') to a few million (the government's).

Now the federal judge hearing that case has, for the second time, held top government officials in contempt of court for failing to take decisive action to correct the fund's shortcomings.

The official bearing the brunt of the court's anger is Interior Secretary Gale Norton. Her defenders argue that she has spent untold hours trying to straighten out the program. They emphasize it's a century-old situation that defies quick resolution. There's, no doubt, some truth in that.

But the judge doesn't buy it. He asserts that Ms. Norton and her aides tried to deceive him by reporting that progress was being made on reforming the trust when it wasn't.

The plaintiffs in the case want the judge to appoint an outside receiver to manage the trust fund. While Judge Royce Lamberth hasn't intruded that far into executive branch business, he has stepped squarely into the workings of the Interior Department. A court-appointed monitor has tracked department compliance with court orders. His findings underlie the contempt ruling. And the judge has ordered Norton to submit a plan to fix the trust system by January.

Having the courts run the executive branch wouldn't pass constitutional muster. But Interior needs to devote more resources to filtering through 115 years of poorly kept (and in some cases perhaps nonexistent) records.

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