Acting Associate Attorney General of the Department of Justice, William Mercer, testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee today when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refused to appear and answer questions relating to a proposal on Tribal Trust "reform"; specifically, a letter with his name on it, offering a $7 billion dollar "settlement" for all claims, past, current and future, from both individuals and tribes, as well as monies to deal with "fractionation" and updated computer systems.
A little background on William Mercer. He is acting (not yet confirmed) Associate General for DoJ, the number three man. He has also, since 2001, held the position of U.S. Attorney for the state of Montana, recommended for the position by former Senator Conrad Burns. He had never testified before the Committee on this subject.
A key issue in all this - just what, if anything, is the US government's liability in the mismanagement of the trusts?
To summarize, Chairman Dorgan, addressing William Mercer, brought up the fact that AG Gonzales, when testifying before another Congressional committee, suggested that the trust claims could total over $200 billion dollars. To which Mercer responded (transcribed from webcast:)
Bill Mercer @ 2:10: A couple of points I'd like to make on the statement. I believe that that text was about the allegations that had been set forth in claims as part of the tribal trust litigation. And going to the question that you posed, Mr. Chairman, We've already seen the dismissal of a claim for a hundred billion dollars as part of that ongoing litigation. So we certainly believe that that is... that that figure represents claims that were set forth by the parties...We've already, as I said, prevailed in one of those cases and we believe that the ultimate value is much, much, much less than what the stated claims were by the tribes themselves.
At least on two other occasions, Mercer brought up the $100 billion claim dismissal, as justification as to either no liability on behalf of the US government, or very limited liability.
Enter the new Senator for Montana, Jon Tester (who seems to be quite familiar with his fellow Montanan, even calling him by his first name.)
Tester @ 2:31: It was either you or Bill Mercer, I can't remember which, and either of you can (inaudible)...talked about a claim dismissal of 100 billion dollars... Which one of you...was that you, Bill?
Tester: When was that dismissed and by whom?
Mercer: I don't have a date. I can certainly get one.
Tester: A ballpark figure? Spring of whenever? Month?
Mercer: Evidently, in the past couple of years...
Tester: In the past couple of years.
Mercer: Obviously, it must have postdated...Well, anyway, past couple of years.
Tester: Well, if we could get a date on that...And who dismissed it?
Mercer: I don't know...We'll get that to you too.
Tester: Okay, great. Thank you very much.
As we mentioned in a previous post, Senator Tester did a fine job in his debut in a Tribal Trust hearing venue; now we only hope that his fresh perspective is able to move the Committee past its tradition of bending and scraping to the entities, particularly the extraction industries, which have exploited Indian Country for their own profit for over a century. A suggestion for Senator Tester: Read yesterday's transcript of the House Resources Committee oversite hearing on missing extraction industry royalities on federal and Indian land. It's all related.