Feds Must Account For Indian Money

A federal judge on Wednesday reinstated his plan for making the Interior Department account for billions of dollars American Indians say they are owed.

The plan was shelved in December when the Interior Department won an appeals court ruling saying it was barred under language Congress added to a budget bill. But when that language expired at the end of 2004, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth revived his plan.

Now, the Interior Department is once again required to account for how much the government owes more than 300,000 Indians. The money comes from oil, gas, timber and grazing royalties dating back to 1887, when Congress created a trust fund for Indians.

Interior officials had said the audit could cost up to $12 billion, and the White House urged Congress to intervene. It did so in November 2003. It passed legislation — language added to the Interior Department's budget bill — that prevented an accounting until Congress could define its scope and methods. Congress had a year to do that.

But Lamberth wrote, "December 31, 2004 has come and gone, and no legislative solution to the issues in this litigation is available or in the offing."

The department has said it would rather devise its own plan, and could provide a full accounting by 2008 for $335 million by using a statistical technique known as sampling.