FROM THE ARCHIVE

Republicans defend Norton on trust fund

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WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 2002

Members of Congress reacted in a partisan fashion on Tuesday to a federal judge's ruling that found Secretary of Interior Gale Norton in contempt of court for ignoring the rights of 500,000 American Indians.

Republicans rushed to defend one of their own from the attack. They criticized U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth for overlooking what they said were the Bush administration's improvements in the management of Indian trust assets.

"I personally believe this slap from the judge is patently unfair and deliberately disregards her excellent work," said Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah), chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers. "I share Judge Lamberth’s desire for a prompt resolution to the Indian trust fund scandal, but I believe his decision to hold Secretary Norton in contempt is misdirected, unfair, and untimely," he said.

On the other side of the aisle were Democrats who said the ruling was a victory for Indian rights. Leading the charge was Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking member on the House panel.

"If they were half as good at counting the bucks as they are at passing buck, we would be much better off," he said of Department of Interior officials.

But Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.), the only Native American in the House, was one of few Democrats to disagree with other party members. He defended Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, a fellow Oklahoman also held in contempt for providing "fraudulent" information about efforts to fix the broken trust.

"He has worked closely with Native American tribes in my Congressional district in reforming this debunked system," Carson said of McCaleb. "He has shown a willingness and devotion to ensuring the trust fund is reformed, and that it is held accountable."

The partisan sparring was reflective of comments that arose when Norton last winter unleashed, without consultation, her plan to strip trust responsibilities from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Republicans initially urged tribal leaders not to reject the idea.

They did so anyway and eventually Norton came around and rejected her proposal. Republican lawmakers, responding to Indian Country complaints, ended up pushing the Interior to reconsider.

Whether pressure from tribes will change the minds of Republicans has yet to be seen. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said the political split was unfortunate but not surprising.

"When Secretary Babbitt was in control, the Democrats defended him and the Republicans took shots at him," Hall said.

Tribal leaders are planning to approach Congress to ensure needed reforms are carried out. Last week, they broke off talks with the Bush administration over a key legislative package.

Hall, who is also chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, said it was vital that Congress not view trust reform as a partisan issue. "Tribes are fed up with the gamesmanship," he said.

"We need Congress to stand up for the right thing," he added.

Get the Decision:
Contempt Findings | Contempt Order

Relevant Documents:
Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) (9/17) | Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) (9/17) | Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) (9/17) | Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.) (9/17)

Today on Indianz.Com:
Norton 'unfit' to manage Indian trust (9/18)
Griles nearly perjured himself (9/18)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

Related Stories:
Norton found in contempt for trust fund (9/17)
Judge holds Norton in contempt (9/17)
Rahall: End the trust fund charade (9/17)
Your Ultimate Guide to Contempt (9/5)