WASHINGTON - An Indian trust fund that mismanaged billions of dollars over the past century can be put on solid footing within the next four years, President Bush's nominee to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs said Wednesday.
An estimated 1,000 of the fund's individual trust accounts, worth about $11 million, belong to Alaska Natives.
BIA Nominee Neal McCaleb, a member of the Chickasaw Tribe in Oklahoma, told lawmakers it will be difficult to determine how much the government owes thousands of Indians and Alaska Natives for past mismanagement and to create an oversight system.
"That's a quick fix under the schedules I've seen," McCaleb said, but added, "My desire and expectation is (finishing) both jobs."
The trust accounts were set up in 1887 to hold revenue from grazing, logging, mining or oil leases on tribal land for Native American landholders. Since the beginning, however, the accounts were mismanaged, the government acknowledges.
"It's a national scandal," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing.
Record-keeping was shoddy, money was stolen or used for other federal programs, some money was never collected, and thousands of money-holding accounts were left with no names attached.
More than 300,000 Natives are included in a class-action suit filed in 1996 claiming they are owed at least $10 billion due to the mismanagement.
A federal court has ordered the Interior Department, which oversees the BIA, to overhaul the trust fund management, and piece together what's owed.
Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said reform of the trust fund has been a myth and McCaleb is a "babe in the woods" if he thinks he can fix it in four years.
"He's only repeating the same lines every one of his predecessors have said for the last 30 years," Gingold said.
McCaleb said the BIA is working out glitches in computer databases created to help reconstruct and track the trust accounts.
McCaleb most recently served as secretary of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. He was a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982 and lost a bid for governor in 1982.
The committee did not vote on McCaleb's nomination, but is expected to do so within the next week. The full Senate must confirm him for the post.