WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that the Interior Department has “unreasonably delayed” its accounting for billions of dollars owed to Indian landholders.
The federal agency “has not, and cannot, remedy the breach” of its responsibilities to account for the Indian money, U.S. District Judge James Robertson said in a 165-page decision in a long-running federal lawsuit alleging mismanagement of Indian trust funds.
“Indeed, it is now clear that completion of the required accounting is an impossible task,” Robertson said.
The suit, first filed in 1996 by Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell, claims the government has mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, gas, timber and other royalties held in trust from Indian lands dating back to 1887.
Robertson said he will schedule a hearing in the next month to discuss a way to solve the problem. He added that his conclusion that Interior is unable to perform an adequate accounting does not mean that the task is hopeless.
“It does mean that a remedy must be found for the department’s unrepaired, and irreparable, breach of its fiduciary duty over the last century. And it does mean that the time has come to bring this suit to a close,” Robertson said.
The judge also blamed Congress for the lack of money appropriated for the cause, citing the “tension between the expense of an adequate accounting and congressional unwillingness to fund such an enterprise.”
He said he did not agree with the Indian plaintiffs’ assertion that an adequate accounting is not possible because of missing records. The record is inconclusive on that point, he said.