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Interior Secretary Gale Norton acknowledged in court Wednesday that a complete accounting of a trust fund handling $500 million a year in royalties from Indian-owned land is impossible because some documents have been destroyed. Norton’s agency is attempting to determine exactly how much money Indians are owed because of prior mismanagement of the fund, which was established more than 100 years ago and is the subject of a class action lawsuit by Indians. “In general terms, trying to piece together all the information since 1887 is going to be a very difficult job,” Norton testified. “It will be blocked in some cases because a particular piece of information has been destroyed.” In some cases, documents were not stored properly and they “crumbled with age,” she said. Norton was on the stand to defend herself against a contempt of court allegation. She said her agency has tried to follow a judge’s order to fix management problems with the trust fund system. Progress has been made, though more needs to be done, she said. “We have tried to use appropriate standards and aspire to a high level of accounting responsibility,” Norton said. “I’m not sure if in every instance we have met that standard.” Federal Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered Norton to testify and explain how the Interior Department did not commit a fraud on the court by concealing the failure of key Indian trust fund accounting systems. Although much of the alleged wrongdoing occurred during the tenure of her predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, Norton and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal A. McCaleb are on trial as the current officials in charge of the trust fund. Lamberth has expressed frustration with the Interior Department’s approach to the case, at one point calling Norton’s handling of certain aspects “clearly contemptuous,” and advising her attorney to “throw yourself on the mercy of the court.” He said at the outset of the contempt trial in December that he would give government attorneys a chance to prove Norton should not be held in contempt, largely to stave off a potential appeal. Now, following weeks of testimony, the contempt trial is nearing its conclusion. The top congressionally appointed trust official, Thomas Slonaker, has testified that he did not have faith in the Interior Department’s reform efforts. In 1999, Lamberth held Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in contempt and fined them $600,000 for failing to turn over documents in the 5-year-old class action lawsuit brought by Indian landowners. Any fines imposed against Norton would be paid by the department, as were those imposed against Babbitt and Rubin. The trust accounts came from an 1887 federal law that divided some reservation land into smaller plots for individual Indians. The federal government holds that land, about 45 million acres, in trust for the Indians — meaning it cannot be taxed or sold and the government must approve any leases. The lawsuit stems from a century of mismanaged mining, grazing and timber royalties from the land. Money intended for Indian beneficiaries was lost, misappropriated, stolen or never collected, the government has acknowledged. The Indians’ attorneys claim the government owes 300,000 Indian account holders more than $10 billion. They want responsibility for the trust stripped from Interior and assigned to a receiver outside the department. Norton has proposed creating a new bureau within the department to manage the money, although that plan has been met with stubborn resistance among Indian leaders. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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