Native Americans and Trust

More than five years ought to be enough time to solve a problem - even if it's one as tangled as a trust fund set up for native Americans.

That, at least, is what federal district court Judge Royce Lamberth believes. He commenced a contempt-of-court trial last week against Interior Secretary Gale Norton and one of her deputies to force some action on cleaning up the Indian Trust Fund.

The judge already had held Clinton administration officials in contempt regarding the same case, which was launched by a class-action lawsuit in 1996. Indian plaintiffs contend they're owed some $10 billion in past royalties and rents on land the government is supposed to hold in trust for them. Grazing, logging, and mineral concessions on the land generate about $500 million a year.

The government says the amount owed is in the hundreds of millions. But it admits that the records are so jumbled, it's hard to be sure.

Ever since it was established more than a century ago, the fund has been subject to sloppy document-handling and neglect. Even the introduction of computerized accounting hasn't helped much. A court-appointed expert found the electronic systems wide open to tampering by hackers.

This long-accumulating mess can't all be dumped on Ms. Norton's desk. But she is in charge now, and her department's performance thus far has not pleased Judge Lamberth - though he did acknowledge that she appears committed to reforms.

The secretary's most notable move so far has been to set up a new agency to deal with the trust fund. Critics are skeptical that any management still under the Interior Department will work. They'd like to see an independent, court-appointed manager. That, say Interior lawyers, would violate the Constitution's separation of powers between branches of government.

One thing is obvious: The Indians, with a history of mistreatment by the government, deserve an honest accounting.

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