FROM THE ARCHIVE
Judge finds Bush officials in contempt on trust
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WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 2002

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Tuesday said the Bush administration plans to challenge a federal judge's stinging ruling which declared her and Indian affairs aide Neal McCaleb "unfit" to manage money belonging to 500,000 Native Americans.

Speaking to reporters at an economic development conference in Arizona, Norton refused to answer direct questions about U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's rebuke. "I have not yet had the opportunity to review his decision," she said.

Nonetheless, Norton was unwilling to accept being found in contempt of court for her handling of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Echoing a statement made by a Department of Justice official who disputed the finding, she spoke of the forthcoming court dispute.

"We believe it is appropriate to seek an appeal," she said, "and so we will be exploring the opportunities for doing so."

The response came hours after Lamberth issued a 267-page opinion that said Norton and McCaleb "deliberately" gave false and misleading information about attempts to fix the trust and become more accountable. In reports to the court, the Bush officials made "fraudulent" claims of progress, the ruling noted.

"The Department of Interior has truly outdone itself this time," Lamberth wrote. "The agency has indisputably proven to the court, Congress, and the individual Indian beneficiaries that it is either unwilling or unable to administer competently the IIM trust."

Reaction to the ruling in Indian Country was swift. Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana banker who is the lead plaintiff in the case, was ecstatic yesterday.

"The wait was worth it," she said, referring to Lamberth's seven-month deliberation for the lengthy and complex ruling.

National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall, an account holder who testified during the trial, said the decision was a "great victory" not just for Indian beneficiaries but for tribes whose funds are also in disarray. He criticized Norton for moving to appeal.

"That's appalling to me," he said. "Appeal after appeal after denial after denial. When does it end?"

Jim Gray, chief of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, is another supporter of the case. "What I see happening is a merging of the two agendas," he said, referring to individual Indian and tribal trust mismanagement.

Lamberth's ruling covers actions taken by both the Clinton and Bush administrations from the fall of 1999 to the winter of 2001. He found Norton and McCaleb, in their official capacities as trustee-delegates, guilty of four out of five contempt charges.

The pair were spared on a fifth specification for disobeying court orders to account for funds owed to Indian people. But Lamberth found that the Interior and its attorneys engaged in "litigation misconduct" for failing to move forward with an historical accounting.

Norton has since issued a plan to correct this particular breach of trust at a cost of $2.4 billion and a delay of 10 years. "It is a tremendous undertaking," she proclaimed yesterday.

The IIM trust was established in 1887 when tribal lands were parceled out to individual Indians. The account takes in about $500 million in oil, gas, timber and other royalties every year, but the government can't for a single penny.

The Cobell case is a class action representing all past, present and future IIM account holders. It was filed in 1996 in the District of Columbia.

In February 1999, Lamberth held two Clinton administration Cabinet members in contempt for failing to produce records for the account holders. He fined them more than $600,000, although taxpayers picked up the tab.

Attorneys for the Indian plaintiffs expect to recover millions for the latest contempt finding.

Get the Decision:
Contempt Findings | Contempt Order

Relevant Documents:
DOI Statement (9/17)

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)