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Discrepancies haunt Indian plate fund

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Questions of transparency continue to haunt the Indiana Native American Trust, the holding account for the money collected on behalf of the state's Native American community through the sale of "Land of the Indians" specialty license plates.

The state operates on $28.3 billion budget and no officials appeared to be concerned when asked why a $3,500 discrepancy exists between the sales numbers reported by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the fund total tracked by Indiana State Auditor Tim Berry's office.

Still, to advocates of the state's Native Americans, the lack of accountability is seen as yet another insult by the state, which has yet to name replacements to the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission after a mass walkout by five Native American commission members in 2008 deactivated the commission.

A tangled web of bureaucracy

The BMV reports sales of 2,246 Land of the Indians plates since June 30, 2011 (though in its first response to a request for these numbers, the agency reported sales of 1,886 plates from Aug. 1, 2011 - June 25, 2012, and listed the end of June 2012 trust fund balance at $150,685, which wouldn't account for any of the year's sales).

If each plate adds $25 to the trust, the year's sales of 2,246 plates should have added $56,150 to the fund for a total of $206,835.

But the auditor's office reported only $52,675 deposited since June 30, 2011 through June 30, 2012, leaving a balance of $203,360.

If an easy explanation exists for the funding lag, state officials with the BMV, the treasurer's office, the State Board of Accounts and the auditor's office failed to offer it. It could be as simple as June sales had yet to be transferred, but the person who could confirm that remains elusive to those answering for the BMV.

To reconcile the account to the dollar, the auditor's office would have to know details such as if the BMV had money in the bank that had yet to be transferred, said Dan Bastin, the state auditor's office settlement director.

But his office is not charged with digging up such details, it simply checks to make sure that the money deposited by the BMV into the state account managed by the treasurer matches the total recorded on the state's ledger for the account. From this respect, Bastin sees no discrepancies.

The state treasurer's office is the custodian for all state-managed cash, including investments. Indiana code instructs the treasurer to invest all unobligated funds in the Indian's trust account. The current fund total reflects no interest earnings, indicating another possible failure to act in the best interests of the Native community in that it appears cash available for investment is languishing unattended.

Though by name the auditor's office would seem the likely entity to issue audit reports, the State Board of Accounts is actually the entity charged with auditing the state's various funds and entities. The BMV is regularly audited and regulators have not raised any red flags with regard to BMV business, though it does not appear they have paid any special attention to the Native American Trust. Likewise, the Treasurer's Office has not complained about the flow of funds from the BMV into the account.

The final accounting of state money is summarized each year in Indiana's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. The last complete report, which captures 2011 finances, does not mention the Native American Trust.

A commission could help

The Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission is responsible for distributing the funds from the sale of Land of the Indian specialty license plates.

The commission took on the responsibility of overseeing the license plate trust fund in 2008 when proceeds from the plates were diverted from Historic Prophetstown after the Tippecanoe County site changed its focus from native peoples to historic farming.

According to state law, funds from the trust can be used for any lawful purpose the commission chooses. But the commission, established in 2005, has been effectually disbanded since June 2008, when five of the Native American commissioners resigned, citing issues with Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration, ranging from failure to fill all the positions on the commission, which left the group gridlocked and ineffective, to broken promises and lack of administrative support.

With no commission in place to manage the trust fund, Debra Haza, an Indiana resident and a member of the federally recognized Odawa tribe located in Michigan, hopes for outside accountability. More importantly, she hopes for a new commission. "We want Governor Daniels to reseat the commission because they're selling the plate on our behalf, but we haven't been able to use the funding for the last three years."

She said she has seen no effort to reseat the commission despite the interest of numerous qualified applicants.

Kokomo resident Sally Tuttle, a member of the federally recognized Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and founder of Native Voices of Indiana (NAIVOI), said she is most concerned about the issue of representation.

"We still have no voice," Tuttle said. "We have a law, but no voice. All I ask is for an equal seat at the table."

Until Daniels or his successor take action, the state's Native Americans remain without the commission created on their behalf and unable to distribute the money collected to bolster their community.

Meanwhile, a bill passed last session aimed in part to consolidate oversight of boards and commissions transferred the commission's administrative support — along with the Indiana Commission for Women, the Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs and the Commission on the Social Status of Black Males — to the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

The CRC's role is limited to tasks such as setting up a website, publishing meeting minutes and organizing files and office space.

"We can only do what the statute allows us to do," CRC Director Jamal Smith said. "Given the opportunity, we would be happy to have a conversation with the Governor and help seat it, but it's at his discretion."

In June, the state House of Representatives renewed the June 2011 appointment of Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, to the commission. The Senate appointed Sen. John Waterman, R-Shelburn, who sponsored the original bill creating the commission. Waterman declined to comment on his appointment or the commission.

Leonard said he sought the appointment because of his interest in Native American history. He wants to see the commission vacancies filled and hopes "to open up communication between the administration and the commission." But he doesn't know if his appointment signals that the governor plans to fill the vacancies on the commission.

"We have filled our appointment like we are supposed to," Leonard said. "You will have to ask the governor's office [when he will fill the commission vacancies]."

Jane Jankowski , the governor's spokeswoman, repeated a long-standing line: The governor does "not have a timetable for new appointments to the commission."

Meanwhile, as sales of the specialty plates continue, money accumulates that cannot be managed or spent by the people it was intended to benefit.


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