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Edith Blackwell exits DOI amid reorganization of legal staff
Monday, October 24, 2011
Filed Under: Law
More on: doi, edith blackwell, hilary tompkins, scott keep, sol
Edith Blackwell, an attorney who handled Indian issues at the Interior Department, has left her post amid a reorganization under Solicitor Hilary Tompkins.

Blackwell's last day was Friday. She will be joining the Department of Health and Human Services to work on Indian legislative affairs.

The exit came after Tompkins, a member of the Navajo Nation who is the first Indian woman serve as Solicitor, reorganized the Division of Indian Affairs. Blackwell was replaced by Michael Berrigan, a non-Indian attorney who joined DOI a little over a year ago to head up the Indian Trust Litigation Office.

Berrigan helped negotiate the $3.4 billion settlement to the Indian trust fund lawsuit. He participated in other trust lawsuits, including the Jicarilla Apache Nation case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a negative ruling for tribal interests.

However, prior to joining DOI, Berrigan's experience in Indian law was limited. He was most notable for serving as defense attorney for detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The other major change at the division affects the status of Scott Keep, another career attorney. He was given a title of "senior counsel," a move that effectively relieves him of supervisory duties over other attorneys.

Like Keep, Blackwell was deeply entrenched in nearly every significant and controversial Indian legal issue during her 14 years at DOI. Blackwell frequently clashed with political appointees and career staff at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and at one point was removed from handling issues affecting the Indian trust fund lawsuit.

More recently, Blackwell was accused of helping the Seneca Nation -- a tribe that her husband, Michael Rossetti, a former DOI attorney, represents in private practice. But a federal judge said there was no evidence that she manipulated a legal opinion that favored the tribe's casino.

Keep kept a lower profile at DOI during his lengthy tenure but also was involved in some hot-button issues, including sovereignty, enrollment and federal recognition. At a recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on a fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, a former BIA employee said Keep was a proponent of the idea that newly recognized tribes can be treated differently.

And some current and former DOI officials believe Keep was responsible for providing sensitive information about controversial federal recognition decisions to outside entities. The leaks led to extremely negative media coverage and attention from Congress during the Clinton administration.

Obama administration officials said Keep's new status essentially prevents him from negatively influencing Indian legal matters at DOI.

Department of the Interior, Office of the Solicitor, Division of Indian Affairs
Interior Department Office of the Solicitor, Division of Indian Affairs

Related Stories:
Judge orders DOI to provide more Seneca gaming documents (9/1)

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