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Money Money Who Took The Money

Bakersfield Californian ^ | 4/8/04 | Dan K. Thomasson - Scripps Howard

WASHINGTON (SH) - No matter who is running the Interior Department - Republicans, Democrats or a hybrid of both - they can't seem to get it right with Native Americans, leaving one to believe that the nation's integrity got buried at Wounded Knee alongside Crazy Horse's heart.

Ever since the U.S. 7th Calvary of Custer fame (or infamy, whichever side one is on) massacred a harmless bunch of Ghost Dancers and their women and children at that now-sacred site, officially ending 30 years of armed hostility toward the Indians, the government has maintained a policy of corruption that even the federal courts can't seem to straighten out despite a persistent and valiant effort by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. That unspoken bureaucratic policy seems to be that if it is no longer permissible to shoot the sons and daughters of Sitting Bull, it is at least fair to pick their pockets.

And, brother, that is exactly what has been going on with hundreds of millions of dollars paid for the use of their land undistributed and unaccounted from a Washington trust fund that has been engendering controversy since 1887. The amount reported in this fund is about $13 billion, but there are substantial allegations that the government has cheated the beneficiaries out of as much as $137 billion. No one seems to really know how much.

One court order after another has failed to bring about a clear accounting. Even Lamberth's drastic step of holding more than one official or another, including the last two Interior secretaries, Democrat Bruce Babbitt and Republican Gale Norton, in contempt of court and ultimately appointing his own investigator to look into the mismanagement hasn't been able to produce an audit in which anyone has any faith.

Now it seems Lamberth's investigator, Alan Balaran, has thrown up his hands in disgust and resigned, charging that both the Interior and the Justice departments have been working overtime to thwart his efforts since he came across evidence that the feds have negotiated oil and gas leases on Indian land with private companies that were only a fraction of the rate paid private landowners.

Balaran reported last year that Interior's chief appraiser in New Mexico in particular had repeatedly worked deals for energy companies to pay less than fair market value to the Indians. One incident he cited was a negotiation with a company to compensate the Indians $4.50 a yard for the right to put a pipeline across their land when the company paid private landowners $104 a yard for the same pipeline rights.

His diligence, Balaran alleges, brought the wrath of the Justice Department down on him. He was ordered out of an Interior repository in Dallas where he was trying to review files on audits of gas and oil leases and accused of unethical behavior. That, of course, should surprise no one given the fact the government long has been protecting a Bureau of Indian Affairs that has set a standard for corruption and mismanagement for over a century