WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federally run trust fund for American Indians that was mismanaged for more than a century can be fixed within four years, President Bush's nominee to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs said Wednesday.
Former Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Neal McCaleb acknowledges that it will be difficult to determine how much the government owes thousands of Indians for past mismanagement and to create safeguards against future malfeasance.
``That's a quick fix under the schedules I've seen,'' McCaleb said, but added that, ``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 American Indian landholders. Since the beginning, however, the accounts were mismanaged, the government acknowledges.
``It's a national scandal,'' Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, said Wednesday during an Indian Affairs Committee hearing.
Recordkeeping was shoddy, money was stolen or used for other federal programs, some money was never collected, and thousands of accounts have money in them but no names attached.
More than 300,000 American Indians 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 the Indians are 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,'' said Gingold.
McCaleb said the BIA is working out glitches in computer databases created to help reconstruct and track the trust accounts. McCaleb said that staffers who briefed him on the progress said: ``We know what we're doing. We know how to do it. We just need a little time.''
McCaleb was praised by senators from both parties, but they also expressed serious concerns about dilapidated schools, inadequate health care and depressed economies on Indian reservations.
``We have a crisis in Indian Country _ in housing, in education, in health care,'' said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
McCaleb is a member of the Chickasaw Tribe in Oklahoma. In addition to heading the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, he was a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982 and lost a bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 1982.
He was a member of two presidential boards dealing with Indian issues _ President Nixon's National Council on Indian Opportunities and President Reagan's Commission on Indian Reservation Economies. As a member of the latter panel, McCaleb helped write a report critical of the BIA and recommending the agency give up some of its responsibility.
On Wednesday, McCaleb opposed suggestions that the BIA yield to a separate agency its authority to manage the trust fund and to grant tribal status. Some members of Congress believed the previous head of the BIA, Kevin Gover, was more apt to approve tribal status for tribes with gambling interests.
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.