WASHINGTON — The U.S. government doesn't owe money to American Indians suing over management of their trust accounts, and their claim for $58 billion is "absurd,” the government says. The Indians originally sued the government in 1994 seeking a full accounting of the funds held by hundreds of thousands of individual Indians, and the lawsuit should be dismissed if they no longer want that accounting, the government says in a brief filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court here. Moreover, the U.S. judge presiding over the case doesn't have the authority to award any money to the Indians and should cancel the trial scheduled for June on the matter, the government says. The government's brief came in response to one filed by the plaintiffs three weeks ago seeking $58 billion to compensate for money they say was collected by the government for individual Indian trust account holders but not paid to the accounts. According to the Indians, about $3 billion was collected in the past 120 years for the accounts but never paid. Holding on to that money has allowed the government to borrow less money to finance its spending, the plaintiffs say. And, they say, based on Treasury bill rates going back over the time period, the government's reduced borrowing costs have meant a total benefit of $58 billion.
Equitable relief soughtAware that U.S. District Judge James Robertson cannot require the U.S. government to pay damages, the Indians say the money owed isn't damages but "equitable” relief that any financial trust would have to provide if it improperly benefited from the use of trust funds. The Indians also are asking the judge to return to the trust all the land that has been sold since the trust's inception in the late 19th century. An estimated 40 to 54 million acres were allotted, but only about 10 million acres remain. The land is the source of most of the money in the individual Indian trust accounts. Robertson recently ruled that it would be "impossible” for the government to perform an historical accounting reaching back more than a century and provide accurate account balances to about 300,000 account holders. In its brief this week, the government rejected every argument the Indians made about why the trust is owed money and how much is owed.